Chapter 8. Mormonism: religion is the strangest

And the angel said unto me, behold, these shall dwindle in unbelief. And it came to pass
that I beheld that after they had dwindled in unbelief, they became a dark, and loathsome,
and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations.
The Book of Mormon

We are called the State Legislature [of Utah], but when the time comes, we shall be called
the Kingdom of God. Our government is going to pieces, and it will be like water that is
split upon the ground that cannot be gathered. For the time will come when we will give
laws to the nations of the earth. Joseph Smith organized this government before, in
Nauvoo, and he said if we did our duty, we shall prevail over all our enemies.
Mormon President Brigham Young

To me, all religions are equal–equally wrong. The tenets of one are no more or less
ridiculous than those of another. But I have elected to look at Mormonism before the
“people of the book” (Jews, Christians and Muslims), for a specific reason. I am hoping
to influence you, the reader. First, Mormons compose only about 1.7% of the
population, therefore, chances are slim that you are a Mormon. Second, Mormonism
was created recently, around 1830, so the historical record of the creator and its early
tenets are not yet lost. Finally, Mormonism has many unusual features that the
average reader will likely find easy to reject.

I am presenting Mormonism first in hopes that you will critically analyze the tenets of
this religion, and once in the habit of doing so, apply the same critical skills to more
popular religions, including your own, if you have one.

As a preliminary matter, “Mormon” is a nickname, disfavored by many followers of “The
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” In fact, many of them refer to themselves
as “Saints,” and to nonbelievers as “Gentiles” (since Mormons think they are grafted
onto the tribes of Israel). However, the term “Mormon” is in the title of their scripture,
the Book of Mormon, first published by founder Joseph Smith in 1830. In fact, the
original edition refers to Joseph Smith as the “author and proprietor.” And “Mormon” is
the name by which they are best known, so I will use that term here.

Joseph Smith was born in 1805 and grew up in the area of Palmyra, New York–a town
located between Rochester and Syracuse, about 95 miles east of Buffalo. He alleged
that in 1820, when he was 14 years old, he was visited by a spirit, in some versions of
the story, god and Jesus; who told him not to attend any of the many churches or
revivals that were popular at that time. There is no record of him telling this story until
1832. The story has gone through a number of versions through the years.

Smith spent his early years as a “money digger,” a con man who charged a fee to
“help” people find buried treasure. He used a “seer stone” he had found digging a well
to lead him to the buried treasure, which would supernaturally slip away before the
diggers could retrieve it.

Smith was first charged with a crime in 1826 for being a “disorderly person and an
imposter,” in conjunction with his search for a lost silver mine. In court, he
acknowledged that he used a stone to find buried treasures. Although he was
convicted of a misdemeanor, the court allowed Smith to leave town with no further

Around the same time, Smith began telling his friends that he knew of a “golden book,”
buried in the ground that would help him to find other buried treasure. In many of the
early stories, Smith used his seer stone to find the golden plates on which the Book of
Mormon was purportedly written. But later a story emerged of a “second vision.” In that
vision, which supposedly occurred in 1823, Smith said an angel named Moroni (or
Nephi) visited him and told him god wanted him to translate a book of golden plates
that contained the pure doctrines of Christianity. Smith related that as he heard this, he
could see where the plates were buried, conveniently only about a mile from his home.
He said he visited the place yearly, and in 1827 an angel allowed Smith to retrieve the
golden plates.

No one but Smith reported seeing the plates, and when he was done translating them,
he said he put them in a cave filled with treasure. The plates were written in “Reformed
Egyptian.” Smith sent a paper copy, labeled “Caractors” (characters), to a professor of
Greek and Latin at Colombia College in hopes of having his claim verified. The
professor was not impressed, labeling the inscription a meaningless batch of crooked
characters including “Greek and Hebrew letters, crosses, and flourishes, Roman
letters inverted or placed sideways.” Nonetheless, Smith said the professor
pronounced the characters authentic, something the professor refuted by saying, “the
whole story of my having pronouncd [sic] the Mormonite inscription to be ‘reformed
Egyptian Hieroglyphics’ is perfectly false . . . [T]he paper contained anything else but
‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics.’”

The golden plates, allegedly measuring six inches by eight inches, and six inches
thick, must have included a lot of text, because Smith spent more than a year creating
a 588-page story. Key to the story was that the tribes of Israel had migrated to North
America between 2,200 BCE and 421 CE. They created a complex and thriving society
with massive cities, but conflict erupted and eventually the tribes became the modern
day Native Americans. The tribes allegedly used numerous metal instruments,
including iron, steel, brass, copper, silver and gold, as well as having swords, coins,
wheels, elephants, asses, oxen, cows, horses, and clothes of silk and linen. One of the
punishments for a group god disfavored was dark skin, which was “loathsome” and
unattractive to the favored, light-skinned group that was “white, and exceedingly fair
and delightsome.” Smith’s book also included language copied exactly from the 1611
King James Bible, a book written a thousand years after the alleged creation of the
golden plates. One commentator noted that Smith, who was not too familiar with
Elizabethan English, “continually slipped out of this King James pattern and repeatedly
confused the norms as well.”

Modern English was also a weakness for Smith. Sentences in his 1830 Book of
Mormon include:

    [T]hey did not fight against God no more.
    [I] have not sought gold nor silver, nor no manner of riches of you.
    [A]nd also of Adam and Eve, which was our first parents.
    [B]oth Alma and Helam was buried in the water.
    [T]hey was angry with me.

An interesting twist is that Smith wrote 116 pages, which his scribe, Mr. Harris then
took home to show Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Harris, angry that her husband was being duped,
hid or burned the pages. Smith, apparently afraid the missing pages would later be
used to show he was not translating but was rather creating the book, refused to
“retranslate” the missing pages, saying in the preface to the Book of Mormon that
satan had changed the words once they left his possession and that god told him not
to retranslate the lost section, but to simply summarize it.

Stylistically, the Book of Mormon was poorly written. Anyone who wishes to question
Mormonism needs only pick up the Book of Mormon and read it to conclude it is
patently ridiculous. But do not take my word for it, judge for yourself. Here is how it

    I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in
    all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my
    days--nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having
    had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a
    record of my proceedings in my days; yea, I make a record in the language of my
    father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
    And I know that the record which I make, to be true; and I make it with mine own
    hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.

    For it came to pass, in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah,
    king of Judah, (my father Lehi having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days;) and in that
    same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people, that they must
    repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed. Wherefore it came to pass, that
    my father Lehi, as he went forth, prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in
    behalf of his people.

    And it came to pass, as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt
    upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things
    which he saw and heard, he did quake and tremble exceedingly.

    And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast
    himself upon his bed, being overcome with the spirit and the things which he had
    seen; and being thus overcome with the spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even
    that he saw the Heavens open; and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne,
    surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and
    praising their God.

The term, “it came to pass” appears about 2,000 times in the original Book of Mormon,
it has been edited to fewer in later editions. Mark Twain called the Book of Mormon
“chloroform in print” and further commented:

    The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old
    Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The
    author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and
    structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a
    mongrel--half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is
    awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast.
    Whenever he found his speech growing too modern--which was about every sentence
    or two--he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came
    to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet.
    If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.

After publishing his book, Smith formed a church, which he and his followers moved
from New York to Ohio in 1831. Smith began preaching the doctrine of “millenialism,”
that the United States government would fall apart, Jesus would return, and Mormons
would eventually take over the world. That doctrine continues today, for example one-
time presidential candidate Orrin Hatch spoke in 1999 of “the transformation of the U.
S. government into a Mormon-ruled theocracy divinely ordained to ‘not only direct the
political affairs of the Mormon community, but eventually those of the United States
and ultimately the world.’” Smith also began taking multiple wives. Facing money
troubles, Smith opened the “Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Bank,” that issued money.
One month after opening, its “currency” was worth 12.5 cents on the dollar and Smith
was convicted of violating state bank laws and fined $1,000 plus costs.

In 1838, Smith moved to Caldwell County Missouri and joined a thriving Mormon
settlement. On the banks of the Grand River, he declared that a rock outcropping was
an altar built by Adam, the first man, after he and Eve fled from the Garden of Eden,
which Smith declared was located near Independence, Missouri.

The Mormon’s situation in Missouri deteriorated into armed conflict with non-Mormons
and the state militia. Several battles occurred, and eventually troops confronted Smith
and his followers. Smith surrendered and was jailed. He faced charges of murder,
arson, robbery and treason. After about six months in jail, Smith bribed his jailer with
$800 and a jug of whiskey and escaped. He left Missouri and moved to Illinois.

In Illinois, Smith formed an army of 4,000 soldiers, about one-half the number in the
entire U.S. military. He set himself up as a military leader and even initiated a run for
the U.S. Presidency. He declared himself, “King over the immediate house of Israel.”
Smith married an additional eleven wives in 1842 and seventeen in 1843, resulting in
at least 33 marriages, but perhaps as many as 48. Smith was subject to numerous
arrest warrants, including one that alleged he attempted to arrange the assassination
of the ex-governor of Missouri who was wounded by an un-apprehended attacker.

Public sentiment built against Smith and the Mormons. Angered by critical articles in a
newspaper, Smith ordered the newspaper office destroyed. Fleeing arrest, Smith
escaped to Iowa, but then returned to face trial. While in jail, a mob attacked and killed
Smith on June 27, 1844.

After Smith’s death, Brigham Young emerged as leader, and facing arrest himself,
moved the Mormons to Utah. The Mormons have since grown to the richest religion,
per capita, in the United States. Mormons altered their dogma to prohibit polygamy
around 1890 and started allowing Black people to hold office within the church in 1978.
Mormons have converted themselves from a despised minority to one with wide
acceptance. A 2007 survey found that 27% of Americans had an unfavorable view of
Mormons, compared to 53% who had an unfavorable view of atheists. Considering
how far-out the Mormon doctrine is, it is surprising there are more self-declared
Mormons in the United States than atheists.

Looking critically at Mormon doctrine, choosing a convicted criminal like Joseph Smith
as a prophet seems inconsistent with the actions of an all-knowing god. Additionally,
Smith was a bad choice as a translator, as his English skills were limited and he
needed to use other people as scribes. An outsider looking at this religion will likely
conclude that Smith was not succeeding as a treasure hunter and decided to try a new

The Mormon scriptures suffer from the same flaw as all religious scriptures, they were
written by men and are fixed in time. When Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, the fields
of anthropology and archeology were limited and DNA was undiscovered. Popular
books of his time theorized that Native Americans were the descendants of tribes that
migrated from Israel and the tales in the Book of Mormon could not be scientifically
debunked. Slavery was still legal in the Southern States and prejudice against dark-
skinned people prevailed. Smith wrote a book that reflected his time.

Smith embellished the stories about the “tribes of Israel” in America with great detail.
He said they had animals such as elephants, donkeys, cows and horses. They wore
clothes of silk and linen. They used metals including iron, copper, brass, steel, gold
and silver. They had great battles where two million warriors were killed at a time.
They had coins made of silver and gold with values assigned to each. They had
barley, figs, grapes and wheat. These stories may have been accepted in 1830, but in
modern times, archeology and anthropology have demonstrated there were no
donkeys or cows in America before the Europeans came, steel and most metals are
absent from American archeological digs, no massive grave sites where two million
warriors (plus their plural wives and children) died have been found, and no ancient
metal coins have been located. Neither has evidence been found that Adam and Eve
lived near Independence Missouri, nor that Adam built an altar on the Grand River in
Missouri. In addition, there is no explanation of why the tribes of Israel would write their
story in “Reformed Egyptian.”

Additionally, DNA testing demonstrates that Native Americans did not come from Israel
1,500 to 4,400 years ago. In fact they came from Asia thousands of years earlier. The
highly reputable Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. was regularly plagued by
Mormon-sourced rumors it used the Book of Mormon as a research document. The
Smithsonian issued this statement in 1988:

                   Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon

           1. The Smithsonian Institution has never used the Book of Mormon in any way
    as a scientific guide. Smithsonian archeologists see no direct connection between the
    archeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book.

           2. The physical type of the American Indian is basically Mongoloid, being most
    closely related to that of the peoples of eastern, central, and northeastern Asia.
    Archeological evidence indicates that the ancestors of the present Indians came into
    the New World--probably over a land bridge known to have existed in the Bering
    Strait region during the last Ice Age--in a continuing series of small migrations
    beginning from about 25,000 to 30,000 years ago.

           3. Present evidence indicates that the first people to reach this continent from the
    East were the Norsemen who briefly visited the northeastern part of North America
    around A.D. 1000 and then settled in Greenland. There is nothing to show that they
    reached Mexico or Central America.

           4. One of the main lines of evidence supporting the scientific finding that
    contacts with Old World civilizations, if indeed they occurred at all, were of very little
    significance for the development of American Indian civilizations, is the fact that none
    of the principal Old World domesticated food plants or animals (except the dog)
    occurred in the New World in pre-Columbian times. American Indians had no wheat,
    barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1492.
    (Camels and horses were in the Americas, along with the bison, mammoth, and
    mastodon, but all these animals became extinct around 10,000 B.C. at the time when
    the early big game hunters spread across the Americas.)

           5. Iron, steel, glass, and silk were not used in the New World before 1492 (except
    for occasional use of unsmelted meteoric iron). Native copper was worked in various
    locations in pre-Columbian times, but true metallurgy was limited to southern Mexico
    and the Andean region, where its occurrence in late prehistoric times involved gold,
    silver, copper, and their alloys, but not iron.

           6. There is a possibility that the spread of cultural traits across the Pacific to
    Mesoamerica and the northwestern coast of South America began several hundred
    years before the Christian era. However, any such inter-hemispheric contacts appear
    to have been the results of accidental voyages originating in eastern and southern
    Asia. It is by no means certain that even such contacts occurred; certainly there were
    no contacts with the ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, or other peoples of Western Asia
    and the Near East.

           7. No reputable Egyptologist or other specialist on Old World archeology, and no
    expert on New World prehistory, has discovered or confirmed any relationship
    between archeological remains in Mexico and archeological remains in Egypt.

           8. Reports of findings of ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, and other Old World
    writings in the New World in pre-Columbian contexts have frequently appeared in
    newspapers, magazines, and sensational books. None of these claims has stood up to
    examination by reputable scholars. No inscriptions using Old World forms of writing
    have been shown to have occurred in any part of the Americas before 1492 except for
    a few Norse rune stones which have been found in Greenland.

The story of the “Kinderhook plates” provides a final insight about Mormonism. In
1843, two farmers buried some bell-shaped metal plates with characters on them and
contrived to “find” them with a Mormon present. The Mormon newspaper in Nauvoo
promptly concluded the plates contributed to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon
and Joseph Smith’s secretary recorded, “I have seen 6 brass plates which were found
in Adams County. . . . President Joseph has translated a portion and says they contain
the history of the person with whom they were found & he was a descendant of Ham
through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the
ruler of heaven & earth.” The perpetrators of the hoax later admitted it. In 1879, a
participant wrote, “We read in Pratt’s prophecy that ‘Truth is yet to spring out of the
earth.’ We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke. We soon made our
plans and executed them. Bridge Whitton cut them out of some pieces of copper; Wiley
and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax and filling them with
acid and putting it on the plates. When they were finished we put them together with
rust made of nitric acid, old iron and lead, and bound them with a piece of hoop iron,
covering them completely with the rust.”

However, the Mormons continued to profess the plates were real until a 1980 chemical
analysis scientifically demonstrated the plates were from the 1800’s, not ancient. As
Mormon apostate and author Charles Shook said, “Only a bogus prophet translates
bogus plates.” Smith had also “translated” some authentic Egyptian funeral texts and
claimed they were written by Abraham and supported the Mormon story. Later
professional translations demonstrated Smith’s translation to be fiction.

Unless you were raised Mormon, you will likely say, “Mormonism is ridiculous, how
could anyone believe it?” As someone raised without religion, that is exactly the way I
feel about all religions. In the upcoming chapters I will discuss problems small and
large with the three major monotheisms, the “people of the book,” Jews, Christians and
Muslims. If you were raised in any of these traditions, I challenge you to maintain the
skepticism you feel toward Mormonism when you look at your religion.
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