Tad Callister, former Seventy of the church, spoke at BYU for the devotional address this past Tuesday 11/1/2016.  If you’ve read my blogs at all, you’re probably aware of two things.  1) I have a sometimes illogically fierce loyalty and devotion to the prophet, apostles and leaders of the LDS church  2) I love the Book of Mormon and testify it is the Word of God, yet I strongly come on the side of it not being an historical work.  Brother Callister was released from the Quorum of the Seventy in 2014 and this talk was not given in general conference, but I still have some trepidation addressing this.

Before being called as a Seventy, Br. Callister worked as an attorney in California and published a couple popular LDS books: Infinite Atonement and The Inevitable Apostasy.  I read Infinite Atonement and felt it was devotionally inspiring and did a good job theologically laying the logical framework for the LDS view of the atonement. But he doesn’t use a scholarly approach. He is using scripture interpretations and prior statements from LDS leaders. The Inevitable Apostasy, I was greatly disappointed in. In it, he built a very strong case for the traditional LDS narrative of the organization of Christ’s church and then falling away.  But he did so by either failing to understand or ignoring all the modern scholarship of the New Testament and instead choosing to use the McConkie ultra-literal style of prooftexting and cherry picking of verses here and there in the New Testament to make his case.  Scholarly consensus is that the apostles did not inherit a well-defined church from Jesus, but that the doctrines and organizational structure slowly evolved over time as apostles were moved by the Holy Ghost and debated back and forth over how to do it best. The early Christian Church’s doctrines and organizational structure seems to look more like Mormonism the further you go along this path not the opposite.

The title of his BYU address was ‘The Book of Mormon man-made or God-given.’  My first question is ‘why not both?’

Because the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion as described by Joseph Smith, the church rises or falls on the truth of it. As a result, if the Book of Mormon can be proved to be man-made, then the church is man-made.  On the other hand, if its origin is God-given then Joseph Smith was a prophet.  And if he was a prophet, then the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints is true.  It is that simple.

I don’t think it’s that simple.  In fact, I’m not sure there are many things in this world more complex.  What is man-made?  What does it mean to be a prophet?  What does it mean that the LDS church is true?  Those are very concise, simple statements, but underneath them are a series of questions that would generate both common ground and disagreement between a wide variety of perspectives both inside and outside the LDS church.

I especially want to address this idea of man-made.  One can easily prove the church is man-made.  A human being filed the paperwork for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to become a legal entity in the United States.  A human put the Book of Mormon to ink.  A human transcribed it.  A human being leads the church today.  A human wrote the New Testament.  A human wrote the Old Testament.  Everything you know about anything in this world, religion or not, came through a human.

Blake Ostler, faithful LDS scholar and Mormon apologist, defines revelation generally and the Book of Mormon translation process specifically, as “synthesis of the creativity of man responding to divine persuasion.’  I’m pretty sure Callister would agree.  So the question is not whether the Book of Mormon is man-made or God-given.  It’s obviously man-made.  The question is whether and to what degree it was divinely persuaded.  Let’s also not forget the only scriptural reference we have to the Book of Mormon translation is in D&C section 8 and 9 where Oliver was actually chastised for relying too much on God and not using his human creativity.  Section 9 verse 7

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.


On disproving the church by disproving the BOM:

Thus, the Book of Mormon has become the focal point of attack by many of our critics. Disprove the Book of Mormon and you disapprove the church and undermine testimonies. But this is no easy task. In fact it is impossible because the Book of Mormon is true.


In this statement, Brother Callister seems to be equating truth with historicity.  But he doesn’t do it explicitly.  I would be curious what he thinks of someone like me who testifies that the Book of Mormon is true, ie it is the Word of God, it has spiritual truth, it has spiritual value, etc, but that it’s likely not historical.  I agree with the above statement, but I have a different idea on what it means for the Book of Mormon to be ‘true’.


Critics must either dismiss the book of Mormon with a sheepish shrug or produce a viable alternative to Joseph Smith’s account, namely that he translated it by the gift and power of God.

The word ‘translated’ and how Joseph Smith used it is a very interesting subject worthy of some time understanding it.  He used the term very loosely, which seems to be legitimate for his time.  His definition would probably be something like ‘start with a text or concept and use it to expound on doctrine and truth about God.’  He was consistent with this view of the word translation in his translation of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, his Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible project, and the translation of the Book of Mormon.


Brother Callister spent a large portion of his talk knocking out some of the lamer arguments against BOM historicity (1-4 below) before getting to the most interesting one, #5.


  1. Joseph Smith, an ignorant man, wrote the Book of Mormon.  (focus on Joseph being ignorant)
  2. Someone else wrote it: Cowdery, Rigdon.
  3. Plagiarized it.  Spaulding, View of Hebrews.
  4. Joseph suffered from mental illness
  5. Joseph was a creative genius, who shaped by his environment, wrote the Book of Mormon.


I think there are two subsets of #5.  a) He was a fraud and a false prophet and the LDS church is a false religion and b) Joseph, being called of God as a prophet, was authorized to bring forth the Book of Mormon, primarily as an act of creative genius, but also persuaded by divine influence.  I think Brother Callister might view them both together as a rejection of Joseph and the Book of Mormon, but I feel 5b is a legitimate, faithful view.


One author suggested Joseph may have read or gleaned information from over 30 books in nearby libraries in order to gather necessary information about the Native Americans.  The claim is then made that these books or discussion of the same in newspapers or conversations became the basis for the historical narrative.

I don’t know what he’s addressing here.  I have never heard an argument before that the Book of Mormon contains accurate descriptions of Native Americans that were not commonly discussed items, ie mound builders.  Let alone 30 books worth of that.  But, anyway…

He then asks and answers a few questions related to this.

  1. Is there evidence he read this much?  No.
  2. Any evidence he visited these libraries?  No.
  3. Did Emma ever comment that he referred to any of these books before?  No.
  4. Were these books present during the translation?  No.
  5. (A rhetorical question, but possibly the most critical point of the entire talk that we will come back to.)  ‘How many No’s does it take to expose the critics argument as pure speculation? Nothing more than a sandcastle that comes crashing down when the first wave of honest questions appear on the scene.’


Even if Joseph obtained historical facts from local libraries or community conversations for which there is no substantiating evidence, the real issue still remains. Where did he get the deep and expansive doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon? Much of which doctrine is contrary to the religious beliefs of his time.


I’m going to push back at Callister’s notion that doctrines of the BOM were new and unknown to Joseph, but I don’t want to convey the notion that this means I conclude Joseph was a false prophet or was not inspired.  I believe Joseph had original ideas but also was a great collator, sifting through ideas he came across and picking the best, piecing together the doctrine of the LDS church, which I believe stands up as the best set of Christian doctrines of any sect.


For example contemporary Christianity taught that the fall was a negative not a positive step forward as taught in the book of Mormon.


The doctrine of the fortunate fall, or felix culpa, has been around for a long time, popularized first by Augustine and making its way into reformation thought, notably Milton’s Paradise Lost (which most certainly influenced Joseph Smith).  See this Ensign article and this interesting podcast episode from the BYU Maxwell Institute on the subject.


Likewise, contrary to contemporary beliefs, the Book of Mormon refers to a pre-mortal existence in Alma 13.


This is reference to Alma 13:3.

And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.


This verse is likely not talking about the prexistence and likely was not interpreted that way by Joseph Smith or early saints. The language is consistent with New Testament verses discussing God’s foreknowledge as described here in a sermon from Massachusetts in 1828 by Jacob Wood quoting John Wesley.  I’m not claiming Joseph was present at the sermon.  But I believe this is representative of the kinds of sermons and ideas being discussed in Joseph’s time.

 The celebrated John Wesley a distinguished opposer of Calvinism and advocate of Arminian principles has given us a plain statement of this subject in his Sermon on Predestination.  He says The scripture tells us plainly what predestination is it is God’s fore appointing obedient believers to salvation not without but according to his fore knowledge of all their works from the foundation of the world. And so likewise he predestinates or fore appoints all disobedient unbelievers to damnation not without but according to his fore knowledge of all their works from the foundation of the world. We may consider this a little farther. God from the foundation of the world fore knew all men’s believing or not believing And according to this his fore knowledge he chose or elected all obedient believers as such to salvation and refused or reprobated all disobedient unbelievers as such to damnation. Thus the scriptures teach us to consider election and reprobation according to the fore knowledge of God from the foundation of the world

The Book of Mormon contains clarifications of many Bible questions and Christian doctrines.  Some we don’t even emphasize in the church today.  Like this foreknowledge question.  You may be surprised to know that the BOM teaches in Moroni 8:22 (and a couple other places) that not just children but ALL who die without receiving the law will be saved.  Today we recognize that just those that die before age of accountability will be saved and that others are required to accept it in the Spirit World.

More from Br. Callister.

… and to a post mortal spirit world in Alma 40. Where did Joseph Smith get these profound doctrinal truths that were in fact contrary to the prevailing doctrinal teachings of his time?


If you want to understand the Book of Mormon better, a good exercise is to go to Google Advanced Book Search and search for various phrases in books published before 1830.  (aside: this was the approach Daniel McClellan took in his excellent research on the BOM verse 2 Ne 25:33 ‘after all we can do’) By googling the phrase ‘state of the soul’, this was the first link that came up.

Of the State of The Dead, And of Those that are to Rise: In Two Volums, Volume 1, Thomas Burnet, Matthias Earbery 1728


It’s very interesting to note the common vocabulary and phrases bunched so close together. The word betwixt appears just four times in the BOM text.

Even if you could show some sort of dependency here, this is not an accusation of plagiarism. Joseph didn’t simply copy this doctrine out of an existing book. I think it’s more likely to imagine this is the environment Joseph is swimming in. He’s expounding doctrine using vocabulary and phraseology he’s heard in sermons, heard in conversations with friends, or maybe read. I believe the doctrine he produced was inspired and brilliant. But I think it’s implausible to imagine ancient people using these modern Christian doctrinal arguments.


Callister then goes on to point out the beautiful sermons on faith in Alma 32 and atonement in King Benjamin’s address, and the allegory of the olive tree with its “complexity and doctrinal richness.”  Again, I agree completely.  I find Alma 32 a beautiful and enlightening treatise on faith.  King Benjamin’s address unsurpassed as a sermon on the Atonement of Christ, and the allegory of the olive tree a complex and rewarding passage.

He then identifies two doctrines plainly taught in the Book of Mormon in a way that clarifies the Bible and clears up error in prevailing Christian thought: baptism and the atonement.  For example “2nd Nephi 2 is a mind expanding sermon on the relationship between the fall and Christ’s atonement.”  Again, I agree wholeheartedly, but don’t see this that this proves anything about historicity. As I attempted to show in this post on the existence of well developed, modern Christian arguments in the Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2 on the Fall and its companion piece 2 Nephi 9 on the atonement, both are quoting the New Testament in a way that modern Christian Theologians do to explain these complicated doctrines.


Does anyone honestly believe that Joseph Smith somehow invented these profound doctrines with their compelling powers of reason, their mind expanding insights, and language that is divinely eloquent?  If these doctrines were the product of Joseph creative mind one might ask were there no other creative geniuses in the 1800 years following Christ ministry who could produce similar document doctrines?


This is why we revere Joseph as the prophet of the restoration.  But none of this requires that he received the doctrines in the Book of Mormon through a God-breathed translation of an ancient record.  What about the doctrines Joseph revealed after the Book of Mormon?  What about the revelations produced since then and today?  These are not based on ancient historical scripture, but we accept them as being valid and from God.


The argument that Joseph Smith wrote the book of Mormon is simply counter to the realities of life is one thing to have creative ideas is quite another to put them into a complex but coherent and harmonious whole inundated with majestic doctrinal truths all done in a single draft in less than 90 days.


It’s a puzzle, for sure.  But I think we can allow for more views of the Book of Mormon and Joseph than a black and white dichotomy that it’s historical and God-breathed or it’s all false.


If I would’ve asked my good Christian friends how they unquestionably know the Bible is the Word of God, I do not believe they would cite archaeological discoveries or linguistic connections with ancient Hebrew or Greek as their prime evidence but rather they would make reference to the spirit. It always comes back to the spirit. The very same spirit that helps me know the Bible is true is the very same spirit that helps me know the book of Mormon is true.The spirit is the decisive determining factor not archaeology not linguistics not DNA and certainly not the theories of man. The Spirit is the only witness that is sure and certain and infallible.


Excellent.  Agree completely.  So let’s stop using historicity as the measuring stick of truth.  The spirit is in that book.  Regardless of historicity.  He then ends with a touching personal anecdote of reading the Book of Mormon as a teenager.

As a boy of about 15 or 16, I was reading the story of the 2000 Sons of Helaman.  I marveled at the bravery and the Lord’s protecting hand. Then a voice came to my mind, ‘that story is true.’

I have had similar experiences.  But what does that spiritual confirmation mean?  I don’t doubt that the Holy Ghost testified to a young Tad Callister that this story is true.  But what was the precise truth that the Holy Ghost was testifying of?

That Joseph invented the story entirely, but the spiritual lessons in it are true.  (a Greg Prince type view)

That, by the power of God, Joseph connected to an ancient text of ancient Americans and extrapolated out the details of the story mostly on his own.  (a Blake Ostler type view)

That the event kind of occurred, but the details were embellished as most ancient writings are, and finally embellished one final time as Mormon was abridging the plates and including what he felt would be most spiritually impactful for a future people. (a Grant Hardy type view)

That the event occurred exactly the way it is described in the Book of Mormon (a traditional LDS view)

Unless we can go back and ask the Holy Ghost what it meant in that moment, it’s not easy to understand.  The Holy Ghost leaves a lot to our interpretation.


Callister’s talk was very logically stated and ended with an emotional stirring.  But I’m afraid he’s making the wrong point.  I’m not totally sure, but he seemed to be making the case that historicity of BOM is required for it to be true.  Further, if historicity of BOM is proven false, then even the church is not ‘true’.  I hope he’s not doing that.  I’m afraid he might have been doing what Richard Bushman said the church was guilty of doing in the past.

I think for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained. The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds, and that’s what it’s trying to do. And there will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially. But I think it has to change. Elder Packer had the sense ofprotecting the little people.” He felt like the scholars were an enemy to his faith, and that (we should protect) the grandmothers living in Sanpete County. That was a very lovely pastoral image. But the price of protecting the grandmothers was the loss of the grandsons. They got a story that didn’t work. So we’ve just had to change our narrative.


I hope Callister is not going to be guilty of protecting a handful of kids in that BYU audience, preserving their testimony, while losing many others in this unnecessary quest to defend the BOM’s historicity.

I hope he was referencing the truth of the BOM in the same way I do, and accommodates a view of non-historicity.  If not, I’m afraid his message is going to backfire.  BOM historicity is getting more and more difficult to defend.  Let’s focus on defending the BOM for what we can testify of and know of, spiritually.  And stop short of drawing a line in the sand on historicity.

It’s accepted by millions as the Word of God.

It changes lives.

It has spiritual power.

Let us not, as Brother Callister suggests create a situation for our loved ones where a testimony of the gospel is ‘nothing more than a sandcastle that comes crashing down when the first wave of honest questions appear on the scene.’  This is what critics of the church think they are doing successfully right now.  The answer is not to hunker down in antiquated understandings of scripture and history and hope it withstands.  Our faith is in God not in historicity.

  1. Nice work… I hope we embrace this narrative more as a church… as Adam Miller said: Each generation must discover for themselves how this work is true. Joseph Smith was an awesome prophet and also a flawed man. He believed in his own revelations and made perfect sense of his environment.

    I don’t think he knew exactly what it was he produced when he translated the BoM through divine inspiration, but I do believe that his work and calling was divine. Scriptures contain the word of God and also of men, and each of us are to sift through it and make sense of it… as Joseph did.

    It’s all about having a connection with God and Christ.

  2. If the Book of Mormon is not a historical record, why did the three witnesses say they were shown the sword of Laban and the Liahona?

    • The Book of Mormon being a loosely historical record wouldn’t necessarily mean there weren’t characters/objects as described. In my view, it simply means the book was written with the history as an afterthought at best, focusing on the spiritual truths instead.

  3. Excellent post. Thanks for taking the time to write this. I’ve been feeling a lot of these things for some time, and the final pull quote summarizes it well.

  4. While I agree that this is the inevitable direction the church will have to go in order to maintain credibility, I think the power of the BoM as a testament to Joseph’s prophetic calling is vastly weakened by this approach. Looking at the BoM as inspired fiction is categorically different from looking at the Bible as inspired fiction, and the difference comes down to provenance. Joseph’s claims of angels and plates surrounding the BoM’s origins make it very difficult to take an inspired fiction approach without either making him a charlatan or putting God himself in the role of deceiver. And in either case the BoM gets demoted to the level of Shakespeare: valuable to be sure, but hardly likely to inspire the kind of commitment needed for missions, tithing, temple worthiness, and the like.

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