The following is from my old blog, five and a half years ago. I apologize in advance for my reference, from my vantage point of the time, to "professional apologists." And I would question some of my conclusions, like this: that the abandonment of Book of Mormon historicity would lead to the great expansion of the Church's humanitarian programs---??
"'Either on the One Hand or On the Other': Why the Book of Mormon is Either True or Fraudulent"
February 13, 2007
“The Book of Mormon claims to be a divinely inspired record, written by a succession of prophets who inhabited ancient America.… This book must be either true or false. If true, it is one of the most important messages ever sent from God to man… If false, it is one of the most cunning, wicked, bold, deep-laid impositions ever palmed upon the world…. The nature of the message in the Book of Mormon is such, that if true, no one can possibly be saved and reject it; if false, no one can possibly be saved and receive it. Therefore, every soul in all the world is equally interested in ascertaining its truth or falsity.”
From the early days of Mormondom, Latter-day Saint authors have presented their audience with a stark dichotomy: the Book of Mormon is either exactly what it purports to be—an ancient record translated by divine power, or it is a deliberate fraud.
While I think there is more room for complexity and scholarly dialogue across faith boundaries than do many of these authors, I have come to embrace, at least in part, the dichotomy they present as one inherent in the claims of the book and its professed translator.
The Book of Mormon is a wedge, separating those who have faith in its own explanation for its existence from those who explain it as a product of either pious or self-serving fraud. Indeed, the book characterizes itself as a divider:
“…I will work a great and a marvelous work among the children of men; a work which shall be everlasting, either on the one hand or on the other; either to the convincing of them unto peace and life eternal, or unto the deliverance of them to the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds, unto their being brought down into captivity, and also unto destruction, both temporally and spiritually, according to the captivity of the Devil…”
This message of the Book of Mormon, and of the LDS authors alluded to, is theological—that faith in the book is a matter of salvation and that the book must be either divine or diabolical. My point, however, is not theological. I’m not going to argue that if false, the Book of Mormon is “a wicked imposition.” Nor will I argue that the use of deception in the creation of the book would preempt the value of its message or the possibility that God (assuming he exists) could use it to bring about his purposes. Although I do see difficulties in maintaining religious faith in a work so produced, it seems to me that persons who profess to see the hand of God in earthquakes, fires, tempests, the sinking of cities, and other such catastrophic “acts of God” should perhaps not be too quick to dismiss the possible presence of that hand in more mundane, and perhaps benign, human acts of deception. But ultimately, questions of the validity of religion that has used fraud belong in the domain of theology, while the questions that engage me are historical: How was the Book of Mormon created? What were the purposes and motives behind its creation? If Joseph Smith is taken as its author, should he be seen as utterly sincere, or measurably deceptive?
Some (such as the historian Robert Remini) prefer to avoid the issue of truth versus fraud, while others seek a middle ground. Scott Dunn, for instance, has advanced the position that Joseph Smith was a sincerely mistaken “automatic writer.” Some have suggested that Joseph merely thought he obtained plates and received the divine translation thereof. And others seem to take the position that Joseph Smith was sincere because God instructed him to make the claims he did and author the Book of Mormon. While middle-ground positions like these are possible, in my view they are inherently unstable and difficult to maintain—logically, psychologically, and institutionally.
The logical difficulty of the Book of Mormon middle ground arises from Joseph Smith’s use of tangible evidence for his claims. He provided for others to heft a cloth-wrapped object he claimed was the set of ancient plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. If the object was such a set of ancient plates, then his claims to supernatural guidance seem very strong indeed. The finding of such an object in the New World, and particularly in North America, and on a hill otherwise bereft of archaeological materials, is unprecedented. And the fact that his claim to divine guidance to the object long precedes his claim to have obtained it preempts the explanation that he fortuitously found a valuable artifact and only later theologized its discovery.
If, on the other hand, the object Joseph Smith wrapped in a cloth and represented as the golden plates he’d found was not what he claimed, then he used this object to deceive those he allowed to heft it and was thus—to that extent—guilty of fraud.
His claim is thus either true or fraudulent. He almost certainly could not have been mistaken in making it. Only a truly delusional subject could mistake a stone, old book, or stack of boards for a set of ancient gold plates he’d unearthed, and innocently pass off the former as the latter over a period of nearly two years. But Joseph Smith’s efficient functioning in everyday life demonstrates that he was almost certainly not a victim of psychotic delusion.
Furthermore, to have acquired an object that so readily could be passed off as the plates, Joseph would have had to carefully search for or construct such an object according to precise specifications of size, shape, weight, texture, and structure. Such a deception could not have been carried out unwittingly. It could only have been deliberate.
It is therefore logically difficult to maintain that Joseph Smith was wrong yet entirely honest.
The dubious logical coherence of the middle ground between revealed history and deliberate fraud engenders the psychological difficulty of standing that middle ground. Because the ahistoricity of the Book of Mormon and the honesty of Joseph Smith are logically dissonant, their simultaneous presence in the same mind tends to be psychologically dissonant as well. And this dissonance state is difficult to maintain. It pushes one to reject one claim or the other. This I know from personal experience, having tried to maintain, in succession, a few different middle-ground positions on the book.
This and other psychological difficulties of braving the middle ground contribute significantly to the institutional problems of such a position. Adopting a middle-ground position on the Book of Mormon is potentially very disruptive and threatening to those communities or institutions built upon it.
On the one hand, the rumors of the LDS church’s apocalyptic demise should it adopt such a position are probably exaggerated. Rabbinic Judaism survived the Reform, which jettisoned the literal truth of the Hebrew Bible. Adventism survived “the Great Disappointment” of Christ’s non-appearance in 1844. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses have survived numerous failures of fundamental prophecy. Similarly, Mormonism would almost certainly survive the shift to an ahistorical Book of Mormon. But it would not likely survive undiminished.
While religions do survive dramatic shifts of fundamental belief, it is probably crucial to the thriving of the LDS church, including its high rates of growth and attendance, that the church continue to maintain the historicity of the Book of Mormon. A complex rationale for how the Book of Mormon is scriptural, although fictional and “translated” from gold plates that are likely fictional as well would be difficult to sell.
The experience of the church formerly known as Reorganized illustrates this. The Community of Christ, which has given up promoting a historical Book of Mormon, is foundering, uncertain of its direction, and losing members to breakaway congregations that still maintain traditional beliefs. Admittedly, this cannot all be attributed to a shift of perspective on the Book of Mormon. The RLDS church was never as strong as the LDS and has recently been led by Protestant-trained leadership, a leadership that tried to Protestantize and liberalize the church rapidly and without having the general membership “on board” for this transformation.
Still, the LDS church is likely to undergo significant stress and unwanted change if it adopts belief in an ahistorical Book of Mormon.
Retooling the missionary program for such a Book of Mormon would make it awkward. The book would be presented as fictional, or equivocally—as possibly historical, possibly fictional, but the investigator would soon discover that the book presents its narrative as literal truth and its narrators as very real persons, whom they will meet at the judgment bar. The investigator would also discover that its putative translator, Joseph Smith, claimed to have obtained the book in the most tangible of forms, metallic plates—from one of the book’s own character-narrators! Explaining this to everyone’s satisfaction would be a good trick. Many investigators would be confused, and a number of new converts would no doubt come in as “fundamentalists,” affirming the historicity that their new church rejects.
Latter-day Saints would also confront the logical and psychological dissonance described above. Questions of why to believe in the first place would likely loom large: “Why trust a fictional book or a prophet who used fraud?” “If Joseph Smith used fraud in this instance, where else might he have used it?”
The nature of LDS belief would be challenged, and perhaps dramatically changed. “If the Book of Mormon isn’t literal,” some might ask, “what else isn’t literal either?” Biblical prophecy? The Second Coming? The resurrection? The restoration of the priesthood? The power of the priesthood? The requirement for everyone to receive the ordinances? And if these were doubted, commitment to missionary work and temple work would flag.
It is not without reason that many LDS leaders and apologists fear that adoption of an ahistorical Book of Mormon lies at the top of a very slippery slope.
That said, the results would probably not be uniformly negative. Adopting an ahistorical view of the Book of Mormon would, for instance, almost certainly result in a greater ecumenism and an expansion of existing humanitarian programs[??]. But it would open a floodgate when the results of doing so are not entirely predictable and could threaten articles of faith almost no present-day Latter-day Saint would want to see discarded.
I think the leaders and professional apologists[??] of the church see these things, and see clearly. For this reason, those who promote the Book of Mormon as 19th-century scripture are likely to continue to meet strong resistance.
To shift from the institutional to the personal, my own experience bears out, at least for me, the difficulty and awkwardness of making one’s stand on the middle ground. My own gradual accommodation of the evidence for 19th-century elements in the Book of Mormon was never meant to be unfaithful: it was meant to be apologetic. I saw myself as reformulating my beliefs in such a way as to both adapt to the new evidence and maintain my faith. But in the process, the content of my faith changed—and shrank. And it was not till near the end of this erosion of my belief that I saw it as an erosion of belief.
At the end of the process, I was somewhere I could never have anticipated at the start. The foundation had been pulled out from under my spiritual world—a loss I still struggle to replace.
Even now, as a nonbeliever in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, I want to find inspiration in it and the rest of Mormonism. And I would prefer to see Joseph Smith as fully honest and sincere. Lacking that, I would at least like to see him as motivated for the welfare of others—a pious fraud. But a wish is not a fact—I should view Joseph Smith in one of these ways not merely if I want to, but only if I perceive the evidence as supporting that view. Sadly, I do not. <Expressions of nonbelief snipped>
A question that has nagged at me in my research into the origins of the Book of Mormon, and nags the more insistently on the view that Joseph Smith was a self-interested fraud, is, “Whence the spiritual power of the Book of Mormon?” There is no question that it possesses this power, and has deeply impacted, and even transformed, myriad lives.
Whence the spiritual power of the Book of Mormon?
The believer has a ready answer for this. For the secular scholar, it is a puzzle sufficiently difficult that none appear to have addressed it.
Copyright: Don Bradley–February 12, 2007, 7:22 PM
All this said, I agree with Ben that Latter-day Saints should accept those who adopt a middle-ground position as a way of preserving their faith. And I wouldn't want to overly dichotomize or lay out an argument to persuade someone who doubts the Book of Mormon's historicity that they should therefore reject the book, and the Restoration, altogether. (What good would that do?) It is, in my view, almost always distinctly unwise to lay out a dichotomy whose likely result will be to push an uncertain hearer further
from the truth.
One "middle ground" position is currently being pursued by the prominent scholar of American religious experience Ann Taves, who is developing an explanation for how, as she sees it, the plates could have been unreal yet Joseph Smith have been sincere. Her theory (which I heard secondhand but in confidence and therefore shouldn't share), so far as it has been explained to me, is interesting and innovative.
But, honestly, I'd have a hard time seeing how her theory could work.
And it still seems to me now, as it did five years ago, that it would be difficult to recast the Book of Mormon narratives as fictional, with their peoples and events having no real world correlates, without at the same time undermining the claims that the Restoration literally restores lost elements of God's ancient faith and that this is the uniquely true church on the earth.
So, while I don't want to press the dichotomy too far, I can't help seeing the Book of Mormon's reality as a matter of great, and potentially grave, consequence. It, like the Restoration's unique divine authority and distinctive revealed doctrine, is something on which we cannot retreat but must advance.
"I’ve known Don a long time and have critiqued his previous work and have to say that he does much better as a believer than a critic." - Dan Vogel, August 8, 2011
"This is it folks, the high point of apologetics for the year. The church pumps millions into FARMS and its PR dept for this." - "Heresy," on a nameless board, August 11, 2011 - after reading the Deseret News piece about my Kinderhook plates presentation