The Book of Mormon

THE BOOK OF MORMON

Reviewed by Richard Packham

First published in 1830, the Book of Mormon has been continuously in print since then, for over 170 years. It has been translated into dozens of foreign languages. Millions of people have read it, many receiving free copies from Mormon missionaries (the LDS church – the largest of the Mormon churches – has a full-time missionary corps of over 50,000). Many of those have accepted its claims and joined one of the many Mormon sects which accept it as divinely revealed scripture. Many others – probably the great majority – have read it and recognized it as a fantasy tale written in the early nineteenth century. And now (2004), through arrangements with the LDS church, Doubleday has published a “trade” edition.

The book purports to be a translation – made by Joseph Smith with divine assistance – of gold plates on which the ancient inhabitants of America wrote their own religious and secular history. It describes these inhabitants as Israelites, having been divinely led to America at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ. It describes their culture, their prophets, their many wars, a supposed post-resurrection visit by Jesus to America, and the final destruction of the more civilized inhabitants about 400 C.E. by the more savage ones, who are the ancestors of the American Indians.

No non-Mormon historian, anthropologist, archaeologist or other expert in pre-Columbian America accepts the Book of Mormon’s (non-religious) claims. Rather than being an accurate description of ancient American culture, it describes what a relatively uneducated person in the time of Joseph Smith might suppose it to be – similar to his own American, European-based culture, with steel, horses, chariots, glass, compasses, coins, wheat, cattle, flocks, and so on. None of these things were known to the ancient Americans. Nor does it accurately reflect how Jewish immigrants to America might have lived, since it shows a great ignorance of Jewish religion and culture. More than that, the book shows no indication of familiarity with genuine ancient American life or history.

The book is filled with many other anachronisms. Much of its religious material is merely copied almost word-for-word from the King James English Bible translation, even putting many words of the New Testament writers into the mouths of American prophets who lived supposedly hundreds of years before Christ. The supposed historical material is largely a reflection of commonly held ideas in Smith’s time about the origins of the American Indians, and mostly based on a book published by a New England pastor just a few years before Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, called A View of the Hebrews, by Rev. Ethan Smith (no relation), first published in 1823, with a second edition in 1825. (See David Persuitte’s book Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon, McFarland & Company; 2nd edition, October, 2000). That notion – that the Indians are descendants of ancient Israelites – has been so thoroughly disproved by science that even many Mormon scholars now admit that Joseph Smith’s claims on that issue were wrong. (See Simon Southerton’s bookLosing A Lost Tribe, Signature Books, Salt Lake City 2004.)

Hundreds of books have been written by Mormons to support the claims made in the Book of Mormon. Hundreds of others have been written to expose the book as a work of fiction. Interestingly, the defenders of the book’s claims generally urge readers of the book not to read anything about the book – especially anything negative – but rather they urge the reader simply to pray to God and ask whether its claims are true. Unfortunately, it seems that God occasionally tells readers that it is true, but apparently he tells many other readers that it is a hoax. Why else would one find dozens of copies in the ten-cent bin at every thrift store in the country? Or perhaps most people feel that they do not need God’s help in confirming that they are reading a fantasy tale – however religious it may sound – and not a description of real life or real events in a real place.

 Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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