The Church makes many spe­cif­ic claims about mat­ters of his­to­ry (both its own, and that of oth­er peo­ples), the migra­tion of peo­ple from one con­ti­nent to anoth­er, the trans­la­tion of ancient doc­u­ments, etc. These are per­fect­ly legit­i­mate sub­jects to be exam­ined using the tools and log­ic of Science.

I do rec­og­nize that some claims the Church makes (for exam­ple, con­cern­ing the exis­tence and nature of God), like sim­i­lar claims made by a vari­ety of oth­er reli­gious insti­tu­tions, are not read­i­ly addressed with the Sci­en­tif­ic Method. But for bet­ter or worse, many of the Church’s claims go beyond these more dif­fi­cult sub­jects, in mak­ing empir­i­cal­ly testable state­ments about peo­ple and places.

I don’t wish to dupli­cate the wealth of infor­ma­tion and research that is read­i­ly avail­able with some brief search­ing of the Inter­net. For that kind of com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion, one can go to places like Mor­mon­Think, 20 Truths about Mor­monism, or read through the CES Let­ter. My goal here is to sum­ma­rize what I see as the most cen­tral and foun­da­tion­al mat­ters, and refer the read­er to those and oth­er sites for a more com­plete picture.

1. The Book of Mormon and the Ancestry of the Native Americans

Joseph Smith claimed to have been direct­ed by an Angel to dig up a set of Gold­en Plates, which were sup­posed to con­tain a writ­ten record of the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants of the Amer­i­c­as. He even­tu­al­ly pub­lished a book, the Book of Mor­mon, which he claimed was the trans­la­tion of this ancient record, from the ‘Reformed Egypt­ian’ in which it was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten. The impor­tance and cen­tral­i­ty of the Book of Mor­mon is indi­cat­ed in this quote from Joseph Smith:

I told the brethren that the Book of Mor­mon was the most cor­rect of any book on earth, and the key­stone of our religion,”
His­to­ry of the Church, Vol­ume 4, P. 461

Ezra Taft Ben­son, Church Pres­i­dent from 1985 to 1994, said:

The Book of Mor­mon is the key­stone of our reli­gion… Just as the arch crum­bles if the key­stone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truth­ful­ness of the Book of Mor­mon… if it can be dis­cred­it­ed, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priest­hood keys, and rev­e­la­tion, and the restored Church.”
Ensign, Novem­ber 1986, ‘The Book of Mormon—Keystone of Our Religion

The fol­low­ing is quot­ed from the Intro­duc­tion to the Book of Mor­mon, from the offi­cial LDS Website:

The record gives an account of two great civ­i­liza­tions. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and after­ward sep­a­rat­ed into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Laman­ites. The oth­er came much ear­li­er when the Lord con­found­ed the tongues at the Tow­er of Babel. This group is known as the Jared­ites. After thou­sands of years, all were destroyed except the Laman­ites, and they are among the ances­tors of the Amer­i­can Indians.”
Book of Mor­mon Introduction

One point to be not­ed here is that the Church changed the word­ing of this Intro­duc­tion around 2006: where­as before it stat­ed that the Laman­ites were the prin­ci­pal ances­tors of the Amer­i­can Indi­ans, it now states that they are among the ances­tors. No expla­na­tion or acknowl­edg­ment of this change was pub­lished by the Church, to the best of my knowl­edge, for the next 8 years. It was final­ly acknowl­edged around 2014, in a foot­note in a recent set of Church Essays on var­i­ous topics.

In recent years, a wealth of DNA evi­dence has been gath­ered, which demon­strates that the Amer­i­c­as were peo­pled by migra­tion from Asia, around 15,000 to 25,000 years ago, over the Bering Strait land bridge that exist­ed at that time. There is absolute­ly no evi­dence of the genet­ic sig­na­ture of Israelite or Mid­dle East­ern peo­ple from 600 B.C., which is when the Book of Mor­mon claims these peo­ple came over.

Peo­ple defend­ing the Church’s claims often refer to ‘Hap­logroup X”, which is a Euro­pean genet­ic mark­er found in cer­tain Native Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions. But the prob­lem here is that the evi­dence shows that these genes entered the Native Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tions any­where between 12,000 and 36,000 years ago, long before the pur­port­ed arrival of the Nephites and Laman­ites. For addi­tion­al details on the DNA evi­dence, please go to Simon Southerton’s blog.

It seems rea­son­able to con­clude that the rea­son the Church altered the word­ing of its Intro­duc­tion to the Book of Mor­mon was an attempt to change its claims and posi­tions to be more con­sis­tent with the evi­dence that had become too com­pelling to sim­ply ignore.

The Book of Mor­mon speaks of a wide vari­ety of ani­mals, plants, tools, mate­ri­als, and oth­er cul­tur­al prac­tices, often in great detail. Exten­sive Archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence is now avail­able, which describes a wide vari­ety of ani­mals, plants, tools, mate­ri­als and oth­er cul­tur­al prac­tices, which are com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from what is report­ed in the Book of Mor­mon. Most of the ani­mals, plants and so forth that the Book of Mor­mon describes are sim­ply not present in the Archae­o­log­i­cal record, and the ani­mals, plants and so forth that actu­al­ly were present and abun­dant dur­ing the years the Book of Mor­mon is pur­port­ed to cov­er, are sim­ply not men­tioned in the text of the Book.

There is a wealth of infor­ma­tion on the Inter­net con­cern­ing this top­ic, but I would like to ref­er­ence one in par­tic­u­lar. It is a Pod­cast Inter­view with Dr. Michael Coe:

Dr. Michael Coe is the Charles J. Mac­Cur­dy pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Anthro­pol­o­gy at Yale Uni­ver­si­ty and cura­tor emer­i­tus of the Divi­sion of Anthro­pol­o­gy at the school’s Peabody Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry. He is an expert on the Maya, who inhab­it­ed the same part of Mex­i­co and Cen­tral Amer­i­can where Mor­mon schol­ars say the events of the Book of Mor­mon took place.”
Michael Coe Interview

I’d like to include a cou­ple of quotes from a PBS Inter­view of Dr. Coe, from May 16, 2006, that sum­ma­rize his per­spec­tive on the Book of Mormon:

The Book of Mor­mon is very explic­it about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domes­tic ani­mals, domes­tic crops, all of Old World ori­gin; met­al­lur­gy, the com­pass, things like that. Just take domes­tic ani­mals, for exam­ple. I men­tioned hors­es and cat­tle. Nobody has ever found the bones of hors­es and cat­tle in these archae­o­log­i­cal sites. Hors­es were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by peo­ple com­ing in from Asia. They nev­er found horse bones in these ear­ly sites between the prime peri­od, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200; nev­er found cat­tle bones there; nev­er found wheat or rye and these oth­er things that they grow in the Mid­dle East. Plen­ty of evi­dence for all kinds of oth­er things that are Native Amer­i­can, but noth­ing there. And that’s the prob­lem: They sim­ply haven’t shown up…

I don’t real­ly know how my friends that are Mor­mon archae­ol­o­gists cope with this non-evi­dence, the fact that the evi­dence real­ly has­n’t shown up — how they make the jump from the data to faith or from faith back to the data, because the data and the faith are two dif­fer­ent worlds. There’s sim­ply no way to bring them together.”
PBS Inter­view, 2006

2. The Book of Abraham as a Translation of Ancient Papyri

A num­ber of Mum­mies, along with sev­er­al Papyri, were found in Egypt by Anto­nio Lebo­lo, between 1818 and 1822. Lebo­lo lat­er arranged to have them sold, and these were shipped in 1833 to Michael Chan­dler, in New York, for this pur­pose. He trav­eled around the East­ern U.S., dis­play­ing and sell­ing some of these objects. In July of 1835 Chan­dler brought the remain­ing 4 Mum­mies and asso­ci­at­ed Papyri to Joseph Smith, in Kirt­land, Ohio. Joseph’s claims as a Trans­la­tor, rel­a­tive to the Book of Mor­mon, were well known, and Mr. Chan­dler was curi­ous to see what Joseph would have to say about them.

These objects were pur­chased by the Church, and Joseph said this about them when he first start­ed his examination:

[W]ith W.W. Phelps and Oliv­er Cow­dery as scribes, I com­menced the trans­la­tion of some of the char­ac­ters or hiero­glyph­ics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls con­tained the writ­ings of Abra­ham, anoth­er the writ­ings of Joseph of Egypt, etc. — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I pro­ceed to exam­ine or unfold them.”
His­to­ry of the Church, Vol­ume 2, P. 236

Joseph even­tu­al­ly pub­lished his trans­la­tion of these Papyri, giv­ing us what we now know as The Book of Abra­ham. The Intro­duc­tion to this vol­ume of scrip­ture, from the offi­cial LDS Web­site is quot­ed here:

A Trans­la­tion of some ancient Records that have fall­en into our hands from the cat­a­combs of Egypt. The writ­ings of Abra­ham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abra­ham, writ­ten by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
Book of Abra­ham Introduction
See also His­to­ry of the Church Vol­ume 4, P. 524

As with the Book of Mor­mon, the Church has indi­cat­ed the impor­tance of the Book of Abra­ham as a demon­stra­tion of the Prophet­ic call­ing of Joseph Smith. B.H. Roberts, a much respect­ed Schol­ar and ear­ly Church Leader (serv­ing in the Pres­i­den­cy of the First Coun­cil of the Sev­en­ty, and as Assis­tant Church His­to­ri­an from 1902 until 1933), said this with ref­er­ence to the Book of Abraham:

…if Joseph Smith’s trans­la­tion of the Egypt­ian parch­ment could be proven dis­cred­it­ed, and proven false, then doubt would be thrown also upon the gen­uine­ness of his trans­la­tion of the Book of Mor­mon, and thus all his pre­ten­sions as a trans­la­tor would be exposed and come to naught.”
Com­pre­hen­sive His­to­ry of the Church 2:138

The orig­i­nal Papyri were thought to have been burnt and lost in the great Chica­go Fire, but 10 frag­ments, includ­ing Fac­sim­i­le 1, were dis­cov­ered in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art in New York, in 1966, and were acquired by the Church in 1967.

First, it turned out that the Papyri them­selves dat­ed to around 200 years before Christ, at least 1500 years after Abra­ham is pur­port­ed to have lived. This is acknowl­edged by LDS schol­ars, as well those out­side the Church. This com­plete­ly con­tra­dicts what Joseph said about the Papyri, cre­at­ing sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­cul­ties for the LDS schol­ars try­ing to rec­on­cile this clear-cut fact and the claims of the Church.

High res­o­lu­tion repro­duc­tions of the remain­ing Papyri have been exhaus­tive­ly stud­ied by sev­er­al Egyp­tol­o­gists, and the uni­ver­sal con­sen­sus is that Josephs’ ‘trans­la­tion’ bears no rela­tion­ship what­so­ev­er to the con­tents of the Papyri. In fact, the Papyri are a com­mon exam­ple of the “Book of Breath­ing,” a funer­ary doc­u­ment, for a deceased Egypt­ian Priest named Hor, with absolute­ly no con­nec­tion to Abraham.

Robert Rit­tner, per­haps the most knowl­edge­able schol­ar on this mat­ter, Pro­fes­sor of Egyp­tol­ogy at the Ori­en­tal Insti­tute, Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, has com­plete­ly trans­lat­ed all avail­able Papyri con­nect­ed with the Book of Abra­ham. This book is avail­able here:

The Joseph Smith Egypt­ian Papyri: A Com­plete Edition

He has referred to the Book of Abra­ham as:

a per­haps well-mean­ing, but erro­neous inven­tion by Joseph Smith… Despite its inau­then­tic­i­ty as a gen­uine his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, the Book of Abra­ham remains a valu­able wit­ness to ear­ly Amer­i­can reli­gious his­to­ry and to the recourse to ancient texts as sources of mod­ern reli­gious faith and spec­u­la­tion. The book still has its uses and sig­nif­i­cance, but not for the ancient world of Egypt and Abraham.”
A Response to “Trans­la­tion and His­toric­i­ty of the Book of Abraham”

For a more com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion on the Book of Abra­ham, Kevin Mathie’s web­site, Exam­in­ing the Book of Abra­ham, is quite use­ful, as is Charles Larson’s book, By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus.

3. The Church’s Version of its own History vs Historical Facts

This cov­ers a large num­ber of top­ics, which are dis­cussed in great detail on var­i­ous web­sites. I will again restrict myself to a cou­ple of foun­da­tion­al issues.

a. The First Vision

Per­haps the most impor­tant one con­cerns what is referred to as ‘The First Vision’, dur­ing which Joseph report­ed­ly had some type of divine encounter. The Church pub­lish­es and offi­cial­ly endors­es the ver­sion appar­ent­ly writ­ten in 1838, although not pub­lished until 1842. It states that Joseph was 14 at the time, and that it occurred in the midst of a gen­er­al­ized reli­gious revival in his home area at that time. He was sup­posed to have endured per­se­cu­tion from his pub­lic report­ing of this encounter. The actu­al records of that peri­od do not describe any such revival that year, nor is there any evi­dence that any­one was even aware of this expe­ri­ence, let alone per­se­cute him for it.

The Church’s offi­cial ver­sion states that Joseph saw 2 per­son­ages in this vision, while mul­ti­ple ear­li­er accounts either omit any men­tion at all of this expe­ri­ence (men­tion­ing only the Angel Moroni and Book of Mor­mon visions), or his see­ing either a ‘spir­it’, an Angel or Angels, or the Savior.

In gen­er­al, his­tor­i­cal sources record­ed clos­er in time to the actu­al event tend to be the most accu­rate, with lat­er accounts more like­ly to be less reli­able. Church Apol­o­gists try to smooth over what are major dis­crep­an­cies and overt con­flicts in the var­i­ous ver­sions, but these efforts seem strained and ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, in my opinion.

For very com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion, from those both inside and out­side the Church, see the First Vision sec­tion on MormonThink’s web­site. But the bot­tom line here is that the Church’s claims about The First Vision are con­tra­dict­ed by the his­tor­i­cal record.

b. The Mechanics of Dictating the Book of Mormon

The Church has con­sis­tent­ly described this process, for the last 180+ years, in both word and pic­ture, show­ing Joseph look­ing at the char­ac­ters on the plates, typ­i­cal­ly sep­a­rat­ed by a cur­tain from the scribe, who would write down what Joseph said.

Going back to the actu­al his­tor­i­cal records describ­ing how this was done, a very dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges. Joseph would place his ‘seer stone’ (a phys­i­cal stone, brown in col­or, dug up from a well in 1822 dur­ing one of his ‘trea­sure hunt­ing’ ven­tures) at the bot­tom of his hat, put his head into it, draw­ing the brim around his head to exclude light, and dic­tat­ed from what he saw there.

Besides the obvi­ous con­tra­dic­tion with the offi­cial account, one enor­mous prob­lem here is that Joseph did not even use the ‘plates’ in the process of his dic­tat­ing the text of the Book of Mor­mon. This is a huge red flag. If he didn’t even need the plates to pro­duce the Book of Mor­mon, then what was the point of the pur­port­ed ancient Nephites cre­at­ing them in the first place? Why all the dra­ma about Joseph’s obtain­ing them, pro­tect­ing them from being stolen, etc., if they weren’t even need­ed? The whole sto­ry sim­ply falls apart, and makes no sense whatsoever.

It is worth point­ing out that, just as the Church changed the word­ing in the Intro­duc­tion to the Book of Mor­mon, it is now alter­ing its pre­sen­ta­tion on how the Book of Mor­mon was pro­duced. In one of the recent Church essays, it is now report­ing the ‘head in hat’ process, which had typ­i­cal­ly been dis­missed by inno­cent Church mem­bers as anti-Mor­mon lies:

Accord­ing to these accounts, Joseph placed either the inter­preters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extra­ne­ous light, and read aloud the Eng­lish words that appeared on the instrument.”
Church Essay titled ‘Book of Mor­mon Translation’

Oth­er areas could be cov­ered here (see the Kinder­hook Plates, Greek Psalter, the pur­port­ed vis­it of Peter, James and John to restore the Melchizedek Priest­hood, etc.), and in each and every case, the sto­ry the Church por­trays as a true account of his­to­ry is con­tra­dict­ed by the evi­dence con­tained in the actu­al his­tor­i­cal records.

Just as the Church altered the word­ing in the Book of Mor­mon Intro­duc­tion, it is now start­ing to change the his­to­ry it presents on its web­site. I sus­pect the Church will be grad­u­al­ly chang­ing quite a lot of what it is say­ing and pub­lish­ing on a wide vari­ety of top­ics, as the easy avail­abil­i­ty of infor­ma­tion through the Inter­net basi­cal­ly leaves them with no alternative.

Sum­ma­ry for the Fac­tu­al Claims Section:

The evi­dence is over­whelm­ing­ly against the Book of Mor­mon being a his­to­ry of ancient peo­ples. And con­sid­er­ing that the Church speaks of this as being the key­stone of the reli­gion, this is a major blow against its truth claims.

The evi­dence is over­whelm­ing­ly against the Book of Abra­ham being a trans­la­tion of an ancient doc­u­ment. This speaks to B.H. Roberts quote above, that if Josephs’ trans­la­tions were shown to be false, it would under­mine any pre­ten­sions that he had as a trans­la­tor of any ancient or sacred documents.

The Church’s por­tray­al of key, foun­da­tion­al events in its his­to­ry, such as The First Vision, or the ‘trans­la­tion’ of the Book of Mor­mon, are also com­plete­ly con­tra­dict­ed by the his­tor­i­cal facts.

Last­ly, I would like to include ref­er­ence to a process called the “Back­fire Effect.” The fol­low­ing is quot­ed from Ratio­nal­Wi­ki on this subject:

The back­fire effect occurs when, in the face of con­tra­dic­to­ry evi­dence, estab­lished beliefs do not change but actu­al­ly get stronger.”

Peo­ple on all sides of any giv­en issue need to be aware of this, and con­sci­en­tious­ly try to elim­i­nate this, as well as oth­er cog­ni­tive bias­es, from their think­ing, if they real­ly want to get to the bot­tom of what­ev­er top­ic they’re study­ing. If you find your­self sim­ply dis­miss­ing any evi­dence that con­tra­dicts your beliefs, with­out seri­ous­ly con­sid­er­ing whether or not it could be legit­i­mate, on what­ev­er sub­ject, it would be advis­able to stop, and ask your­self if you’re being affect­ed by the back­fire effect, or oth­er cog­ni­tive bias.

Hans Mattson’s sto­ry is rel­e­vant here. He was a ful­ly believ­ing and devot­ed mem­ber of the Church in Swe­den, serv­ing as an Area Author­i­ty, in the 3rd Quo­rum of the Sev­en­ty, from 2000 to 2005. He even­tu­al­ly became aware of some of the fac­tu­al prob­lems with the Church’s claims, and was shocked by what he dis­cov­ered. He address­es this in a poignant inter­view with Lau­rie Gold­stein of the New York Times, on July 20, 2013. Despite his upbring­ing and beliefs, he was able to some­how real­ize that there were very real prob­lems with the Church’s claims.

Series Nav­i­ga­tion: Exam­in­ing Church Claims — Don Cohen« Intro­duc­tion to Exam­in­ing Church ClaimsEpis­te­mo­log­i­cal Considerations »
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