The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, has a worldwide membership of over 13 million people. Although located in 162 different countries, the LDS church is largely concentrated in the western United States. Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Mormon church is their missionary enterprise which is made up of more than 50,000 members mostly between the ages of 19-26. Although primarily male, around 15% of the missionaries are single women and older couples.
The Mormon religion is based on three overarching ideas. First, that Joseph Smith was visited by God and Jesus Christ at age 14 in 1820 and three years later by angelic beings, John the Baptist, and the Apostles Peter, James, and John. The content and information dispensed during these visitations comprise the bulwark of Mormon doctrine. Belief in God and Joseph Smith as his prophet are of paramount importance in receiving salvation. Secondly, the LDS Church is not a new work of God but rather a restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ as originally established by the Savior. According to official church teaching, the true gospel was lost in a worldwide apostasy (falling away from orthodox belief) and not restored until Joseph Smith's visitation and revelations in the 1820's.
Thirdly, the goal of the Latter Day Saints is to become divinity. Classic Mormon theology states "as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become. By keeping the ordinances of the church, entering the Mormon priesthood, receiving endowments in the Temple, and holy living, members seek to be worthy of exaltation into godhood. The journey towards divinity is begun in this life but usually continues even into the afterlife.
Adherents to the LDS church embrace basic Christian doctrines with their own series of modifications. A prime example is their belief in the Holy Bible. Mormons believe that the Old and New Testaments are the word of God "as far as it is translated correctly." This caveat exists because Latter Day Saints do not believe it is the complete or final word from God. In addition to the Bible, Mormons embrace The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price as essential revelation from God. Furthermore LDS theology is open ended in the sense that the Church President is a living prophet and may receive fresh revelations from God which may cancel or supersede anything previously written.
Another modification is their belief in the Godhead. Mormons believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but unlike orthodox Christianity which teaches that there is one God in three persons, they believe in three Gods who are one in purpose. God is the God of other Gods, but even He had a father and mother. All humans when they are finally exalted will become Gods and through celestial marriages (which are performed in LDS temples) they will have spirit children who will someday become mortal and become Gods through exaltation as well.
The Mormon doctrine of man seems to be a hybrid of ancient Hinduism and Christianity. In the LDS conception, man's life has several phases. First man is pre-mortal. He lives with a spirit body made of a substance different from earthly bodies (problematic in this is how gods with bodies like ours give birth to people with spiritual bodies unlike theirs). Second is his mortal existence. At this time his spirit and an earthly body are joined. He has no remembrance of his spirit existence yet choices he made in the spirit world effect his lot in life here on earth (i.e. poverty, color of skin, health). Following death man lives in a disembodied state on earth until his resurrection. Finally man reaches immortality. In this final stage his body will be resurrected and joined to his disembodied soul and will live forever. If he is worthy enough to attain to the highest level of heaven (the celestial kingdom), he will become a God in his own right.
One of the greatest differences between Mormon doctrine and Christianity is on the fall of man into sin. Judaism and Christianity both regard Adam's transgression as a fall from a higher estate of righteousness and blessing. Mormonism teaches that Adam and Eve had immortal bodies but Eve sinned and became mortal. Adam was forced to choose between obeying the command not to eat of the tree of good and evil and the command to be fruitful and multiply. By choosing the latter and becoming mortal through sin, Adam opened the door for billions of disembodied spirits to have a physical existence and thus provide them with the opportunity for becoming worthy of exaltation as gods in the world to come. Summed up, Adam's fall was a fall upward to godhood.
What should we make of these claims by the Mormon Church? They are hugely successful in their program of evangelism and many of their adherents are highly educated and conscientious people. Could Mormonism have some truth in it? Without going into every detail lets consider the three core beliefs of Mormonism: the prophetic office of Joseph Smith, the concept of being a 'restoration' of the original church, and the progression of man unto godhood.
Much has been written concerning the person and life of Joseph Smith. Mormon literature esteems him while non-Mormon writers tend to vilify him as the devil incarnate. While a person's character does relate to their credibility as a message bearer for God, this isn't always the case. John the Baptist and Daniel were certainly prophets of sterling quality but Moses, David, and Caiaphas had less than spotless records. Instead of examining the messenger, it is the message which should be given scrutiny. The prophet hood of Joseph Smith rests on the credibility of the book of Mormon. Mormon sources state the book was originally written in the Americas around 600 BC by the prophet-historian Mormon. These writings which were done in an ancient form of the Egyptian language were entrusted into the hands of Mormon's son Moroni who hid them in upstate New York. In the 1820's Moroni, now a resurrected being met with Joseph Smith and helped him find both the writings and the special means of translating them into English. It is here that some problems begin to emerge.
Despite the claim of authorship around 600 BC, the book of Mormon quotes verbatim literally hundreds of King James Version passages of the New Testament. It also borrows heavily from many books written about America that were published in Joseph Smith's day. Another problem is the fact that the Book of Mormon is a literal word for word, letter for letter, translation of the golden plates of the original. As a whole the book of Mormon translates into King James English. This was neither the language of the people in Joseph Smith's day, nor the language of the writers of the New Testament 1500 years earlier, nor would the language of reformed Egyptian (the existence of which has never been authenticated) be likely to translate out into the King's English. Many ancient writers of antiquity borrowed from the phraseology of the New Testament and even wrote using the names of the apostles as a way to honor them and gain credibility. What is incredible is someone like Mormon borrowing from writers who lived 700 years in the future and who wrote in a style that didn't exist for another 2,211 years!
What also seems a bit difficult to understand is how God has not seen fit to leave us the golden plates as a testament and proof of the veracity of Mormon's prophecy. He saw fit to leave a trail of ancient manuscripts which verify the text of the Old and New Testaments. It seems that a loving God would be concerned that His people would readily embrace this lost truth.
With regards to the LDS being a restoration church as it was originally formed by Jesus Christ, a couple of things seem to contradict this. First of all the worldwide apostasy of the church which is said to have happened after the death of the apostle John is very unlikely. If this is true then why has there been an unbroken chain of Christian martyrs from the book of Acts until the present day. People willing to die for their Christian faith hardly seem like people living in apostasy. Second, neither Jesus nor His Apostles spoke or taught on the mediation of an Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood. They instead continually emphasized Jesus Christ alone as the mediator of salvation. The Church has always been the community and fellowship of the faithful but Christ has always been the exclusive means to human redemption and salvation.
Finally, the Mormon belief in the exaltation of man unto godhood also seems to be an untenable position. This seems more akin to Hindu thought than Christian belief. Jesus said we could be His disciples and that through Him we might find eternal life. But eternal life was not to be found as a god but rather as a glorified and restored human being. Adam and Eve's sin in the garden of Eden was to reach after God's position and in doing so they fell from a state of grace to a state of falleness. It is at this point man is rescued by the Son of God that man might be finally restored to his original position as he was created by God.
The Disappointment of B. H. Roberts
Brigham H. Roberts is revered in Mormon history as one of the Mormon Church’s greatest theologians and historians. His six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church is still one of the most respected works of Mormon history. Roberts was a General Authority, member of the Mormon Church’s First Council of the Seventy, a group which is second only to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In 1898 he was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, although he was never seated because he was a polygamist.
As a young missionary in Tennessee, Roberts began to formulate his defense of the Book of Mormon. Upon one occasion he debated a Campbellite minister on the authority of the Book of Mormon. That debate was the beginning of his reputation within the Mormon Church as a leading defender of the Book of Mormon. In time he became recognized as the expert Book of Mormon apologist. In 1909 he published his chief defense of the Book of Mormon, entitled. New Witnesses for God.
The Doubts Begin
In 1921 an event occurred which forever changed Roberts’ life. A young Mormon from Salina, Utah, William Riter, wrote to Apostle James E. Talmage with five questions challenging the Book of Mormon. Riter had been asked the questions by a man from Washington, D.C. who was investigating the claims of Mormonism. Talmage was too busy to answer the questions, so he sent the letter on to Roberts. This was the beginning of an investigation which would trouble Roberts until his death in 1933. The study deeply challenged his faith in the Book of Mormon and ultimately changed his opinion of its divine origin.
Roberts’ personal struggle with his waning confidence in the Book of Mormon is recorded in three documents he produced in the last years of his life. None of these works was published during his lifetime, but they are now available. A comprehensive study of these documents was published in 1985 as Studies of the Book of Mormon by the University of Illinois. This book is edited by two Mormon scholars: Brigham D. Madsen edited the manuscript and Sterling M. McMurrin wrote an introductory essay.
Roberts studied the questions for four months without replying to William Riter. Riter finally wrote to him, asking if he had completed his response. On Dec. 28, 1921, Roberts wrote back saying he was studying the problems, had not yet reached a conclusion and would soon respond. The next day Roberts wrote an open letter to President Herbert J. Grant, to Grant’s counselors, to the Twelve Apostles and to the First Council of Seventy, requesting an emergency meeting with all of them to discuss the matter.
Roberts told the General Authorities: “I found the difficulties (raised by the five questions) more serious than I thought ... it is a matter that will concern the faith of the Youth of the Church now (and) also in the future.”
President Grant responded immediately to Roberts’ request for an emergency meeting of the Church’s top leadership. Within a week the brethren assembled for an intense two-day conference at which Roberts delivered a 141 page report entitled, “Book of Mormon Difficulties, a Study.” Roberts appealed to the collective wisdom of the brethren and said he was seeking the inspiration of the Lord in order to answer the questions.
It is fair to say the General Authorities “stonewalled” Roberts at the meeting. After two days, he came away disappointed and discouraged. In a letter to President Grant four days after the meeting he said:
“I was greatly disappointed over the net results of the discussion ... There was so much said that was utterly irrelevant, and so little said ... that was helpful.”
Roberts continued to discuss the matter through letters with President Grant and continued for some months to meet with a committee formed out of the larger group comprised of one of Grant’s counselors, Talmage, and Apostle John Widsoe. But, Roberts never was satisfied with the response of the brethren.
As his investigation continued, he became more and more disillusioned with the Book of Mormon; and he always resented the response he received at the two-day seminar. Two months before his death he told a friend, Wesley P. Lloyd, former dean of the graduate school of Brigham Young University, that the defense the brethren made for the Book of Mormon might “satisfy people who didn’t think, but (it was) a very inadequate answer for a thinking man.” He said Apostle Richard R. Lyman did not take the matter seriously and the others, “merely one by one stood up and bore testimony to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. George Albert Smith—in tears—testified that his faith in the Book of Mormon had not been shaken by the questions.”
Roberts told Lloyd “in a Church which claims continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary.”
Concerning the Five Questions
Of the five questions, Roberts was most concerned about the linguistic problem. (See accompanying sidebar “The Five Questions.”) However, he also discovered new problems. He told Lloyd he saw literary problems in the Book of Mormon as well as geographic problems. Of the geographic problems he asked:
Where were the Mayan cliffs and high mountain peaks in the Book of Mormon? The geography of the Book of Mormon looked suspiciously like the New England of Joseph Smith!
Joseph Smith Did Not Get The Book of Mormon From God!
Roberts eventually concluded that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself—that he did not translate it from gold plates. Smith produced it, Roberts said, by drawing upon his own natural talent and materials like Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (published near Joseph’ s home a few years before the translation of the Book of Mormon).
Roberts became convinced that View of the Hebrews was “the ground plan” for the Book of Mormon. Roberts, the man who had started his missionary career defending the Book of Mormon and became its staunchest apologist, had to admit the evidence proved Joseph Smith was a plagiarist.
One must empathize with the elderly Roberts as he came to realize he had spent a lifetime defending something which he now knew was a fraud. It is heartbreaking. It is perhaps, this fraudulent perpetration of the Book of Mormon that is the most heartbreaking aspect of Mormonism. Millions of Mormons base their faith in Mormonism upon this book which is no more than the invention of Joseph Smith. Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt correctly identified the essential question concerning the Book of Mormon when he declared:
"If true, (the Book of Mormon) 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, calculated to deceive and ruin millions who sincerely receive it as the Word of God, and will suppose themselves built upon the rock of truth, until they are plunged, with their families, into hopeless despair."
What was the final resolution for Brigham H. Roberts? No one can say for sure. However, I am afraid for him. I fear that this giant intellectual, who could stand against the president of the Church and call the Apostles to task, committed intellectual suicide. In a conversation with Wesley Lloyd, just two months before his death, Roberts showed him what he called “a revolutionary article on the origin of the Book of Mormon.” In Lloyd’s opinion, Roberts’ work was, “far too strong for the average Church member.”
What Lloyd saw was “A Book of Mormon Study,” a 300-page document in which Roberts sets forth his reasons for concluding that the Book of Mormon was not of divine origin. In the document, Roberts investigated the documents (including View of the Hebrews) which Joseph Smith could have consulted in writing the Book of Mormon. He investigated “the imaginative mind of Joseph Smith.” He quotes Joseph’s mother who recalled how Joseph would give “amusing recitals” in which he would describe, “the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship.” All this, Roberts acknowledged, “took place before the young prophet had received the plates of the Book of Mormon.”
Roberts suggests that Smith became caught up in spiritual “excesses” out of which he imagined prophecies and manifestations:
“His revelations become merely human productions. … Morbid imagination, morbid expression of emotions (were) likely to find their way into the knowledge of Joseph Smith and influence his conceptions of spiritual things.”
The Gold Plates Didn’t Exist
Roberts, according to Lloyd, concluded that Smith’s visions were “psychological” and that the gold plates, “were not objective”—that is, they didn’t really exist! They existed only on a “spiritual,” or subjective plane.
God was gracious to B. H. Roberts. God let him see the overwhelming evidence of Joseph Smith’s fraud. We cannot be sure what his final conclusions were because he died before he could resolve these issues. However, the evidence indicates that B. H. Roberts was so steeped in the deception of Mormonism that he was unable to escape its spiritual hold. In his last conversation with Lloyd, with only two months of life before him, Roberts indicated that he had not yet given up on Joseph Smith. He said that although the Book of Mormon was of obvious human origin, perhaps the Church was still true. Perhaps he could yet establish the divinity of Joseph’s call. If the Book of Mormon failed him, perhaps he could find divinity in the Mormon Church’s secondary book of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants!
©1991 James R. Spencer
THE FIVE QUESTIONS ROBERTS COULDN'T ANSWER
B. H. Roberts asked the General Authorities to answer these five question:
1. Linguistics: Riter asked—if the American Indians were all descendants of Lent—why there was such diversity in the language of the American Indians and why there was no indication of Hebrew in any of the Indian languages?
2. The Book of Mormon says that Lehi found horses when he arrived in America. The horses described in the Book of Mormon (as well as many other domestic animals) did not exist in the New World before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.
3. Nephi is stated to have had a “bow of steel.” Jews did not know steel at that time. And there was no iron smelted on this continent until after the Spaniard conquest.
4. The Book of Mormon frequently mentions “swords and scimiters (scimitars).” Scimitars are unknown until the rise of the Moslem faith (after 600 A.D.)
5. The Book of Mormon says the Nephites possessed silk. Silk did not exist in America in pre-Columbian times
Postscript: In the spirit of truth and fairness I would encourage anyone reading this page to access the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints webpage at http://www.lds.org/ . I would also recommend the Mormon Research Ministry at http://www.mrm.org/. Both sites are worth your time in researching and seeking the truth concerning Mormonism.