Category Archives: Mormonism

When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.

Olivercowdery-sm

Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery

 

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So the LDS Church Finally Admitted What the Rest of Us Knew All Along…

You’ve probably heard the news that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, has for the first time officially acknowledged that church founder and prophet Joseph Smith was a polygamist with over 40 wives.  You may also be wondering why this seemingly common knowledge is news to anybody except the most willfully ignorant latter-day saints.  Certainly, this could be comparable to the Catholic Church finally admitting that the Earth revolves around the sun in 1992, almost 400 years after condemning Galileo.  Some may say better late than never, but I would say it still doesn’t go far enough.

For starters, this particular essay, while on the official website, isn’t linked to the church’s homepage.  The clear intent here is that people specifically Googling about Joseph Smith’s polygamy will now be able to weigh the church’s official response alongside content created by critics and secular historians, however the church still doesn’t want seekers inquiring about Mormonism in general to be able to easily find this information.  This is nothing more than the cultic control that the Mormon church is known for, that it took so long for them to publicly admit it is more an acknowledgment that they’ve lost their ability to control their own narrative in the internet age.

Second, while the church is still trying to protect the reputation of their prophet, they admit to several details which hint at how much worse Joseph Smith was than is even commonly known about him.  Most strikingly, it repeats the story Joseph Smith would tell his future wives, that an angel with a drawn sword threatened him with destruction unless he instituted plural marriages.  Now to any moron, this sounds like it could likely be a case of a man in a position of power taking advantage of a devout woman’s religious beliefs for self-serving sexual gain.  Given Joseph Smith’s track record of lying and fraud, and the absence of any corroboration of this angelic appearance by anyone else, the simplest explanation is that he lied to girls to coerce them into having sex.  And if this was the reason why women on record for being hesitant (and sometimes already married) ultimately consented to marry him, then sex under these false pretenses is in fact rape.  No amount of faith or wishful thinking can change or cover up this uncomfortable truth.   Like every other defense of Mormonism, it can only be excused away if one already believes in Mormonism, which is only acceptable in the real world if Mormons completely abandon their missionary activity.  The burden of proof is entirely on every Mormon to provide empirical evidence that Joseph Smith’s angelic encounters did actually occur, as there is no shortage of ministers exploiting their positions and their follower’s beliefs for sex, but none of them would ever be defended by millions of blind sheep.  Of course, assuming the Mormon’s heavenly father really did send an angel to threaten Joseph Smith to marry other people’s wives might sort of excuse their prophet, but it still makes their god look pretty immoral.  Also consider that the God of the Bible sends an angel to both Joseph and Mary to ease their uncertainty about the virgin birth, but all of Joseph Smith’s 40 wives just had to take his word.  One wonders how anybody could confuse the two for the same God or the same religion.

Frankly, now that the church has publicly admitted this unwholesome detail, latter-day saints can no longer feign ignorance as a defense; every single one of them who still follows the teachings of Joseph Smith from this point on is an immoral reprobate.  They have to acknowledge this fact, whereas before even if they were aware of it, they could have at least argued that it may have happened in the past, but it wasn’t the church’s proudest moment and it didn’t really affect the lives of LDS today.  Instead, their official position has suddenly become not only that it happened, but that it was commanded by God and necessary for the church.  The LDS church had tried to identify themselves with “family values” when their credibility, history, and archeology proved bankrupt, but now they don’t even have that.  While some Mormons may still remain faithful despite knowing the real story of the 116 lost pages, the Salamander Letter, or the so-called “Book of Abraham”, there’s not really anything immoral per se about willfully believing things that are patently untrue.  However, if you’re a Mormon who even remotely suspects that Joseph Smith might have been a rapist and you choose to overlook that fact, then you no longer just have stupid beliefs, you’re also an evil person.

Next, this article perpetuates some of the LDS church’s damnable lies about polygamy.  The missionary’s go-to defense of polygamy is usually that it was necessary when the faith was young to increase the population.  This argument is just plain silly, because even if a woman had multiple husbands, she can still only birth so many children in a 9-month period.  But since Joseph Smith had over 40 wives, he would have to have slept with several of them a day just to make the rounds with all of them in a month, and even then the odds would be against him that it would coincide with their fertility.  On top of that, it’s been alleged by reliable sources that Smith’s friend Dr. John Cook Bennet performed forced abortions on the girls who were already married so their other husbands wouldn’t find out.  That might be too difficult for some Mormons today to accept (or reconcile with the church’s current pro-life stance), but then they would still have to explain why Joseph Smith didn’t have dozens if not hundreds of more children through so many wives, if that really were the reason.  It’s a far-fetched defense, nevertheless, the essay does try to make this claim:

“Plural marriage did result in an increased number of children born to believing parents.”

What facts do the church historians cite to support this?  The footnote here appears to be a deliberate attempt to bury the truth, as it directs the reader to click to another article and reference another footnote (which the reader inconveniently has to find themselves, the church couldn’t be bothered to link directly to that footnote even though an anchor clearly already exists for it):

On the question of children, see note 6 of “Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah.”

However, the first line of that footnote actually says the exact opposite of what the church claims:

“Studies have shown that monogamous women bore more children per wife than did polygamous wives except the first.”

If anybody was giving the modern LDS church the benefit of the doubt until this point, I hope they can see now that the church is still just as sinister and deceptive as it was when it was led by serial rapist Joseph Smith.

Lastly, the essay makes it clear that members today no longer practice polygamy.  I find it ironic that they admit to this doctrinal flip-flopping in an article which is itself a flip-flop.  For over a hundred years, church members could have been disciplined and even excommunicated for writing the same content that this essay now makes official.  Will the church welcome any of those former members back?  What does this say about any of the reasons for which members today can still be excommunicated?  As much as Mormons hate being labeled a cult, what else can you call an organization that seems to value no position except what the current leadership teaches, even if that contracts what they taught the day before?

Frankly, if they were going to go this long refusing to acknowledge things which are common knowledge outside the church, then it probably would have been better for them to simply go on ignoring it.  But now that they’ve given at least the facade of open inquiry, I hope their members start evaluating what kind of leaders they revere, and what kind of organization they belong to.

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Joseph Smith: Reformer?

Joseph Smith is a complicated personality to explain.  Despite numerous inconsistencies, the failure to identify definite ulterior motives for his claims and actions causes many Mormons to accept Joseph Smith’s account of his own life without question.  After all, why would somebody lie about being visited by an angel, or finding and translating a buried testament of Jesus Christ?  On the surface, these claims can seem too fantastic to be made up, and if critics are unable to convincingly present an alternative explanation for Joseph Smith, then the Mormon will never abandon the official church version (even when they know that to be not exactly historically accurate).

My own stance on explaining the complexity of Joseph Smith’s personality is the same as my view on the Book of Mormon itself.   I only need to present evidence of plagiarism or source material that would be unavailable to the book’s purported authors to disprove the Book of Mormon’s authorship claims, I do not have to be able to explain in every minute detail how Joseph Smith came across his source materials and authored his fiction.  Similarly, embarrassments like the Book of Abraham caught Joseph Smith red-handed in his lies, I don’t need to psychoanalyze him to know that this is deception.  Questions of “how” and “why” are irrelevant or secondary at most, all that really needs to be demonstrated is that the book and its author are frauds.

For instance, one likely source for the Book of Mormon that I recently stumbled upon is the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs.  This text is a pseudepigrapha of undetermined Judeo-Christian origin probably finalized in the 2nd century of the Christian Era.  Scholars are undecided on whether it was a Christian document or a Jewish document with later Christian interpolations, but all agree it is a forgery.  Possible influence on the Book of Mormon is loose, but its structure of the Patriarchs writing their testimony on their deathbeds is eerily similar to the last entries in the small plates of Nephi.  Some Mormon apologists have even attempted to cite similarities between the two as proof that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text, apparently oblivious that this argument is essentially saying the Book of Mormon must be real because it resembles other known forgeries.  Of course, the standard Mormon response is to say that even though the Testaments were first translated into English in the 1820’s, Joseph Smith would have been unlikely to have had access to that information.  I counter that it’s impossible to conclude to any degree of certainty whether Joseph Smith could not have known something, but as long as it was a fact published within his lifetime, then it’s not impossible for him to have had some direct or indirect exposure to it.

I admit I can’t prove any solid ties to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Book of Mormon, but I bring it up to point out the flip side of the Mormon defense of Joseph Smith.  Why did this author and others in antiquity and throughout history write books and then attribute them to Biblical figures?  If an inability to explain why Smith would lie forces us to accept his word, then wouldn’t it force us to accept every other pseudepigrapha as well?  I doubt I can fully explain the motivations behind Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, or Mirza Ghulam Ahmad either.  But if a Mormon is to give Joseph Smith the benefit of the doubt, then they must be willing to give these other false teachers the benefit as well, or prove without a doubt their falsity.

The Mormon resistance to admitting Joseph Smith as a fake is usually because they could only envision him in that role as a deliberate liar with evil intentions.  This is an unrealistic view that really isn’t typical of the false prophets that have walked the earth; the reality is that most of them have been psychologically complicated personalities known as pious frauds, not very different from Joseph Smith’s profile.  My theory is that self-proclaimed prophets–especially those closely tied to an existing religious tradition–emerge more out of a desire for reform than to deceive; the deception is merely an unavoidable side-effect of their reform methods.  Perhaps out of desperation when traditional reform methods have failed, such as the Bab’s frustration with the state of Islam in Iran.

While religions can often be reformed through conventional means, they also demonstrate a unique phenomenon of charismatic reform.  An example of conventional reform is the Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther.  His 95 Thesis were not intended as a new revelation or scripture, but rather as logical reasoning from within the framework of the accepted canon.  The resulting doctrine of sola scriptura is the apotheosis of rational reform, being a wholesale rejection of arbitrary authority like personal revelation.  On the other hand, the Counter-Reformation exemplified the opposite, weighing its claims, dogmas, and creeds on the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy, an office considered to be infallible by its followers.  While conventional reform is based on logic and reasoning accessible to any human being, charismatic reform is by fiat, and available to only a select body or individuals.  Conventional reform tactics are the prevailing trend in Western civilization, even permeating the secular arena, such as in the way Americans interpret and amend our own Constitution.

While Catholicism embraced charismatic reformists, other religions have built-in defenses against it.  Islam, for instance, strictly prohibits its adherents from claiming any divine revelation after the time of Muhammad.  Although they are often far from rational, juristic rulings or fatwas are really the only acceptable means of advancement available to Muslims.  Conventional reform in Islam, however, has been stunted due to the fact that Muslims consider these majority rulings to be infallible, and therefore irreversible.  Thus after a millennium, Islam was left behind by the modern world, and could advance no further.  But out of the school of one theological reformer Shayk Ahmad would come the Bab, who would break the boundaries his predecessors could not, simply by declaring himself a new prophet.  Overnight, theological innovation and social progress heretofore undreamed of in the Muslim world was effected.  The Bab’s movement would go through a succession crisis after his death, but would emerge as the Baha’i Faith and commence a new wave of women’s rights, racial equality, and religious tolerance.  Almost.  While charismatic reform can be a shortcut to progress, its fatal flaw is that it can usually go no further than the most advanced point of its prophet.  Although Baha’i views on gender equality surpassed those of Muhammad, yet Baha’i women are forever prevented from serving in the highest governing body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, just because Baha’u’llah failed to envision society becoming even more egalitarian than his own views.  Other rulings, like his ban on homosexuality, have been a legacy of frustration to dissenting Baha’is who could only hope for another charismatic reform after 1,000 years (the soonest that Bahai’s believe a new Manifestation of God would be revealed).

Returning to the subject of Joseph Smith, it must be pointed out that his theology developed in a Post-Revolutionary American Protestant climate that, while receptive to conventional reforms, frustrated many in its slow progress towards equality, especially in the recent failure to outlaw slavery in the Constitution.  Abolitionists were just one of many groups anticipating an overnight advancement.  While Mormonism has earned a reputation for its racist history, Joseph Smith is often unfairly castigated for views held by his successors, when in reality his own opinions were radically progressive for the pre-Civil War period.  I would go so far as to argue that Smith was assassinated not because he was a prophet, but because he was a pro-abolition prophet.  Following the LDS succession crisis, however, the church would be grounded in the racial doctrines of Brigham Young until cancelled out by another revelation in 1978.  Just as Baha’i gender equality remained locked in the revelations of the 19th century, so the LDS church was unable to reform itself through conventional means.  Of course, since Mormons didn’t have the impediment of having to wait another 1,000 years for a new prophet, there’s really no excuse for their lack of progress.

As for theological reforms, the Book of Mormon was not so much an innovation as it was an affirmation of folk-American Christian beliefs.  Smith sided with Protestants on infant baptism and, although he would later recant and try to edit it, provided proof-texts for a flawed Trinitarianism in his first edition. Ultimately, what we see is Joseph Smith attempting to circumvent the debate of conventional reform under the authority of a new divine revelation.  Since the Book of Mormon was the only LDS scripture in print at the time, we could reasonably speculate that Smith could have rationalized it as a necessary fraud if he thought he was merely resolving theological questions in favor of what he believed were in line with God’s views.  But as we’ve already seen, forging sacred texts to settle theological disputes is hardly a new development in history.

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The Transition

Skipping over 2 Nephi, probably the most useless book in the Book of Mormon, I’ll resume with the minor books of the so-called small plates of Nephi: Jacob, Enos, Jarom, and Omni.  For those interested, 2 Nephi isn’t worth covering because half of the book is text copied nearly word for word from Isaiah, with some occasional changes.  Two facts are evident at this point in Joseph Smith’s creative process:  First, he had mentally moved on from his project of “translating” the gold plates and had already started his next project of re-writing the King James Bible, which he would commence after writing these last few books.  2 Nephi’s Isaiah is a precursory exercise, identifiable by Smith’s obvious obsession of removing all the italicized words from the KJV text, sometimes to the point of meaninglessness.  An in-depth study of his process isn’t really very interesting or reader-friendly, however, and would be more suitable if this blog ever gets up to what’s known as Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation of the Bible.  The second and more obvious fact is that Joseph Smith is just filling space at this point.  Apparently, even in this supposedly abridged version he felt he had to cover a certain number of pages to make up the lost material.

With the original manuscript conveniently lost, we can only speculate why Smith decided at this moment that he had rambled on enough to resume the narrative.  Whatever the reason, he abruptly abandons the character Nephi and for these next few transitionary books, pretends to pass the plates down from father to son.  I call these transitionary books, because during this period Joseph Smith is decidedly trying to connect this re-told beginning with the rest of the book he had already written after Mosiah.  This transition is far from smooth, making the grafting point one of the most confusing sections of the whole book, as we’ll see later.

The books get progressively smaller, and by the time we get to Omni the plates are supposed to have passed through five different authors in one book.  This suggests that Joseph Smith was aware that he had rambled a little too long in Nephi’s voice, and if he was going to bridge a gap of hundreds of years then Nephi’s descendants could not be so long-winded.  He lets the character Jacob ramble on a little, interestingly making the Book of Mormon the only sacred text in the world to explicitly condemn polygamy (Jacob 2:27), and giving an early glimpse into Smith’s own psychological preoccupation with plural marriage.  Enos and Jarom aren’t given nearly as much space, but Smith still had not learned to economize words, these still read like the same ramblings only shorter.

Finally, we get to Omni, perhaps one of the most fascinating sections of the Book of Mormon.  As Jerald and Sandra Tanner have pointed out, this is the very moment that Joseph Smith safely passes the black hole made by the 116 lost pages.  In this book, the plates pass from Omni, a self-confessed “wicked man”, to son Amaron, to son Chemish, and Abinadom.  These writers tell us practically nothing, and only seem to etch a paragraph or two on their death bed.  My theory of the Book of Mormon as a parallel Bible suggests that Joseph Smith has arrived at the book of Judges in his Bible reading and is influenced by accounts of the lesser judges: Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.  Interestingly, the passages here seem to be considered Mormon scripture solely because they were written on the same plates as the others, as Chemish even suggests that divine revelation has ceased altogether at this point (Omni 1:11) .

Finally, we get to Amaleki, the point where the “small” plates crash awkwardly into the (as of yet) incomplete book of Mosiah and the finished book of Ether.  Here it helps to have read the rest of the Book of Mormon first, but even then it can be difficult to understand, especially if one tries to abide by the Mormon interpretation.  The Nephites venture out to the land of Zarahemla, populated by another group of Jews who crossed to the Americas during the reign of Zedekiah.  Not only this, the people of Zarahemla had been in contact with Coriantumr, the last survivor of the Jaredites, and had the plates of the book of Ether.  What Joseph Smith attempts to do here is rather brilliant, by tying together his post-Tower of Babel Jaredites to the Nephites in a form of foreshadowing; his actual execution, however, is lacking and raises a lot of questions.

First, this Amaleki serves a king named Mosiah, the father of king Benjamin.  In the next book, however, we’re introduced to king Benjamin, who has a son named Mosiah, who in turn sends a man named Amaleki to Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:6).  The LDS explanation, unsupported by the text, is to refer to these duplicates as Amaleki I and II, and Mosiah I and II.  While this certainly helps the narrative flow, I think the more logical explanation is that Joseph Smith intended these characters to be the same person, but his memory had faded in the re-write process.  The book of Mosiah is the actual point where the lost pages cut off, but where exactly is unknown; nevertheless, it had been almost a year since Smith had worked on Mosiah until the time he wrote Omni.  Furthermore, we also know that Mosiah received substantial editing by Joseph Smith before the printers manuscript was delivered, but even then, Smith had failed to catch errors in the first edition, as he continues to refer to King Benjamin (Mosiah 21:28, 1830 edition) well after his death.  I suspect he originally intended Mosiah to be the father of Benjamin, but by the time he came back around he accidentally reintroduced them in reverse order and killed off Benjamin prematurely.  Although the narrative makes less sense that way, I think it seems much more likely to conclude that these were supposed to be the same people in different tellings of the story.  The Mormon interpretation, after all, presupposes that this is a story that’s supposed to make sense to anybody other than Joseph Smith.

Omni ends with Amaleki wasting precious space to tell the reader that the “plates are full”, which would have been obvious to the reader had there actually been any real plates.  Time and time again, purported authors describe parameters about the plates that are not only unnecessary to anybody who would have actually handled them, but rather tedious to chisel into metal.  For unknown reasons, Smith seems to have paced himself to fill up a precise amount of pages and once that is accomplished he brings it to an abrupt end.  Mormons struggle just to derive a coherent narrative from this transition, yet without the LDS church’s guidance I think most Mormons would be at a loss to make sense of these different characters.

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Who Is the Book of Mormon’s Target Audience?

The focus on the Book of Mormon usually centers around Joseph Smith, which can sometimes present more questions than it answers.  Though many have tried, Smith is admittedly a difficult person to analyze, and many Mormons unable to thoroughly determine his motivations for deceiving so many people tend to give him the benefit of the doubt.  The authors of holy books are, however, usually complicated personalities, many with questions that may never be fully resolved.  Muhammad, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and countless others display dual traits of seeming to believe their own claims or theology to a certain extent, while simultaneously demonstrating awareness of the deception.  Clearly, we cannot just give them all the benefit of the doubt.  Personally, I don’t think I have to be able to explain the motivations for why any holy book was written, I actually think more can be learned from looking at its target audience instead.

For starters, the Book of Mormon’s own descriptions of itself hardly sound like conventional scripture.  As the story goes, the gold plates were the only copy in existence, guarded more as a private journal or a secret book than one for the spiritual benefit of an entire civilization.  The fictitious Nephites didn’t make and distribute copies of their scripture as the real Jews did the Law and the prophets, nor did they create liturgical structure like the Jewish parashot,  or commentaries.  The Nephites seem to be the most unique sect in history for being so incapable of spreading their own holy books, that even believers would have to admit that the Book of Mormon didn’t become scripture in the traditional sense until Joseph Smith started to publish it.  It was only then that he and his followers actually started to treat it as such, carrying it to church, preaching from it, and creating study materials.  It’s ironic that Mormons today are so aggressive in printing and scattering their word around the world, when there seems to be no explanation why their supposed predecessors couldn’t do the same.

Next, the contents of the Book of Mormon aren’t very applicable to its supposed audience.  So-called prophecies about Columbus, the Revolutionary War, or even the book’s own discovery would be meaningless to a civilization that would perish centuries before any of these events occurred.  And since  its remarkably specific prophecies end abruptly at the early 19th century, it seems obvious that was its target audience, which logically points to Smith and/or his companions as the author.  Furthermore, the Book of Mormon anachronistically quotes or paraphrases many New Testament scriptures that would have been unavailable to an audience in the Americas, totally defeating the purpose of quoting, as only a later audience could have appreciated the connection.

Finally, the theology of the Book of Mormon and the LDS church bears an undeniable resemblance to American folk beliefs of the period.  While New Testament authors took it for granted that future generations might not preserve the exact method of baptism practiced by John and later followers, the Book of Mormon is practically written as an instruction manual.  Similarly, disputes over infant baptism, works vs. grace, and even polygamy were all-too-conveniently resolved by the Book of Mormon in one pretty package with ribbons, even though this same book seems to have been useless to preserve the religion of the ones claimed to have written it.

If Mormons treated the Book of Mormon as the Nephites supposedly did, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to plant a copy of it in every house and hotel room.  It would be a more secretive book like the embarrassing Book of Abraham, which they withhold from prospective converts until they’re ready to swallow its absurdity.  The reason they don’t act like the Nephites, though, is because the Book of Mormon wasn’t written for the Nephites, it was written in the 19th century for Joseph Smith’s 19th century contemporaries.

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The Mormon Mind Prison

Well, it wouldn’t be quite fair on a blog that’s supposed to be dedicated to Mormonism (sorry folks, 2 Nephi is just sooo boring it’s hard to blog about) to do an entry on the “Muslim Mind Prison” and not follow-up with an essay on the Mormon Mind Prison.  Islam and Mormonism have a lot of similarities in how they were founded, but their present-day practice and social integration couldn’t be further apart.  Unlike Muslims, Mormons are well-integrated into most societies and cultures, have literacy rates up to Western standards, and (believe it or not) are more open-minded.  Nevertheless, Mormons have several intellectual barriers that can make dialogue or debate a frustrating exercise.

Mormons Cannot Engage the Book of Mormon as Literature

I’ve pretty gone as far as I can with the missionaries at the temple visitor’s center.  After a certain point of discussion, they all but stop volunteering information or answering questions to any degree of satisfaction, and instead seem to be reading from a script.  It’s not really their fault, however, because I’ve tried to take them outside the perimeters of their mind prison.  The most obvious way in which we’re on two irreconcilable wavelengths is my stubborn refusal to accept the Book of Mormon as fact in any way.  My open rejection of its historicity is met with aggressive, dogmatic claims that saturate the entire discussion.  If you don’t believe the Book of Mormon, it will eventually take its toll on the conversation, as if the missionaries seem to be trying to gradually wear away at your defenses, fatigue you into conceding to their belief for the sake of advancing the conservation, or possibly get you to inadvertently agree with them in some small way.  It’s life or death for the Mormon in this scenario, because the Book of Mormon absolutely has to be literally true or else the entire faith unravels.  This contest of wills is possibly one of the keys to the missionary’s success rate, since even people who are challenging the claims of Mormonism need to overcome this hurdle to move the conservation forward, and agreeing with or ignoring their claims about its origins and authorship seems like a small compromise at first.

Mormons Give More Weight to the Book of Mormon than to the Bible

For a religion that claims to use the Bible, you almost wouldn’t know it from how the book is handled in the church.  The LDS’ Eighth Article of Faith states:

“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”

While it’s common for people to view canons as flat, with lesser books still bearing the same weight as the major ones, in the Mormon mindset the Bible is unreliable without the body of other Mormon literature and the footnotes to the Joseph Smith Translation.  The damaging effect this has cannot be underestimated.  Anybody engaged in a Biblical discussion with Mormons needs to be aware of this fact, or they will be assuming a level playing field where one does not actually exist.  A sola scriptura Bible-based approach to trying to convert the Mormons is ultimately doomed to fail, because ultimately, the Mormon’s understanding of the Bible is filtered through Mormon theology, and in their minds the two are indistinguishable.  Mormons often cannot relate to how a Biblical interpretation would differ in the absence Joseph Smith’s doctrinal peculiarities, and even though they think they grasp it, they’re not easily capable of understanding Christian theology until they mentally divorce Mormon thought.

Mormons Think They Know about Other Religions

Because their canon encompasses the Old and New Testaments in addition to all their other books, Mormons often see themselves as more knowledgeable about scripture than Jews and Christians.  This isn’t in itself entirely the fault of Mormonism; a lot of Western Christians mistakenly believe they know more about Judaism than Jews, when the reality is they know very little of the Old Testament outside of the narrative.  This aspect of American folk religion permeated into the Book of Mormon, in which it appears Joseph Smith was entirely ignorant of ancient Hebrew culture.  There may be vague references to keeping commandments or festivals, but absolutely no specifics are cited from Mosaic Law.  It reads like what a Gentile would envision Hebrew society was like, but falls short of any identifiable facts.  Not only that, Joseph Smith continued to write his own scriptures that sought to correct the “mistakes” of mainline Christianity, but really only demonstrated his ignorance of Christian theology.  As a result, Mormons think they know what the Trinity is, when their anti-Trinitarian arguments are usually addressing Modalism instead.  Their smug know-it-all attitude about Christianity shouldn’t be as successful as it has been, but unfortunately most of their prospective converts are just as ignorant.  They may not know Christianity, but they do know more than a lot of Christians.  Not to mention they’re better dressed and prepared for the uninvited meeting, all of which give them a confident edge over their prey.

Mormons Fall Back on Their “Testimony” When All Else Fails

Obviously, the greatest intellectual barrier separating Mormons from the rest of society is their emphasis on their personal “testimony” that the Book of Mormon is true (in their mind, anyway).  Never mind that if every believer used this argument to defend their holy book nobody could ever be reasoned into changing religions.  Mormonism is the epitome of irrational and illogical faith, yet it is only within the domain of reason and logic that one can engage them.  It goes without saying that a Mormon cannot leave the church until they overcome this barrier, yet all too often its influence on the Mormon mind is not fully grasped by the one trying to reach them.  However, it can be very frustrating when reason, facts, and logic vanquish Mormonism in a debate but the Mormon still holds to their faith by this single thread, truly retreating into a mind prison.

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When Fundamentalism Isn’t Really Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in the American lexicon.  Its negative connotation conjures images of religious radicals, extremists, and anti-intellectuals..  Critics of Fundamentalism like Karen Armstrong, Bruce Bawer, and John Shelby Spong often develop their own criteria to define the ideology, which usually has less to do with fundamentalist beliefs and more to do with their positions on science, abortion, and sex.  Ironically, some people consider themselves not to be fundamentalists simply because they take relaxed stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, when theologically they are still very much fundamentalist in their beliefs.  An unusual phenomenon is that Christian fundamentalists may become skeptics after being unable to reconcile an unreasonable Biblical literalism, essentially retaining fundamentalist interpretive methods even as nonbelievers.  More recently, the term has been extended to people of other religions in addition to Christianity, as if it were an all-encompassing ideology that could be applied in equal measure to any belief system.  This, however, is a misnomer that only creates further confusion about the definition of a fundamentalist.

The first problem with calling members of other religions “fundamentalists” is that fundamentalism is a term specifically coined to refer to Christians who subscribed to the “Five Fundamentals” (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the reality of miracles), a theological package which is exclusively Christian.  The second problem is that Fundamentalism was a reactionary ideology to the emerging Modernist and liberal schools of the 19th century.  Other religions that have acquired a label of “fundamentalist” by some adherents have not even yet had such an encounter with Modernism.  For instance, Islam has no comparable school of textual criticism of the Qur’an as there exists for the Bible, while their beliefs about revelation differ tremendously from the Christian concept of inspiration, its closest comparison is  to Biblical inerrancy.  There is no organized body in Islam that dares to question the virgin birth, and while the atonement and resurrection of Christ are rejected by the Qur’an, these beliefs are absolutely held in common by all Muslims.  In other words, if we were going to apply the same definition to Islam, we would be forced to conclude that all Muslims are fundamentalists, not just the Ayatollah or Al Qaeda.

Similarly, Mormonism includes a splinter sect called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the line of demarcation between them and mainline Mormons is the continuation of beliefs from the time of Brigham Young, namely polygamy.  Like Islam, Mormonism has a long history of rejecting textual criticism and non-literal interpretations of the Book of Mormon and other later scriptures (although, ironically they employ peculiar, unscholarly criticism of the Bible).  Proponents of theories suggesting the Book of Mormon is inspired folklore, for instance, have resulted in reprimanding and disciplinary action.  In essence, all Mormons subscribe to a fundamentalist worldview, whether they see it that way or not.  Like some Christians, they may even entertain evolutionary theory as possibly compatible with their scriptural beliefs, but they still do so on fundamentalist terms (it may shock many of today’s Christians to discover that the essays in “The Fundamentals” did not actually denounce biological evolution).  I would go so far as to say Mormons and Muslims could not possibly relate to a non-fundamentalist worldview and still believe in their religion, because textual criticism would naturally unravel it.

It’s clear that not all Fundamentalism is created equal.  While generally a best practice is not to refer to any group as fundamentalist unless they take that title for themselves, even among those who make that claim it is evident that their reasons for calling themselves such, like fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Mormons, are completely dissimilar.  Ironically, when apologists try to defend a religion like Islam from criticism about jihad or human rights violations, suggesting that fundamentalism is the problem, not the religion itself, they would technically be categorically denouncing their entire religion anyway if they honestly applied the term the same as they do to Christianity.

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