There is a ton of discussion on the web regarding the archeological and
textual evidences for the heavenly or earthly origins of the Book of
Mormon. I don't have much to add to this debate, but I will provide an
introduction to help the newbie get oriented.
Importance of Book of Mormon
Joseph Smith said,
"I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any
book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer
to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."
In a roman arch,
the keystone is the central wedge-shaped stone. They say it holds the other
stones in place and if removed, the whole arch crumbles. Because of that
central property, people who scrutinize the Mormon religion tend to spend a
lot of time scrutinizing its keystone, the Book of Mormon.
There are some claims that religions make that are beyond science. They
are beyond science because (at this time) science is incapable of testing
them. Such claims might include what happens to the soul after we die and
what is the purpose of the creation.
However, when a religion makes claims that can be tested by science,
doesn’t science have the right--even the responsibility--to test them? For
example, the Bible clearly implies that the earth is the center of the
universe. Copernicus believed that science had the right to test that
claim—it is a claim that could be measured, and if false, disproved. For
over 100 years, the Catholic Church persecuted astronomers who had the
audacity to carefully look at the movements of heavenly bodies and honestly
declare that a heliocentric solar system made more sense than a geocentric
Likewise, the Book of Mormon claims to be the literal history of a
massive civilization—millions of people of Israelite descent whose
territories covered "the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the
sea north, from the sea west to the sea east." These people brought a steel
sword with them from the Old World. They made more swords when the arrived
in America, and fought in battles that had hundreds of thousands of
causalities. They had horses, chariots, flocks, money, wheat, and barley.
These claims can be examined with scientific scrutiny. We can ask if the
Book of Mormon is a real history, what are the chances that the
archeological record would confirm it?
There are two approaches to analyzing the Book of Mormon: it can be
approached from faith, or it can be approached through skepticism. There are
those who through personal spiritual experiences are absolutely certain that
the Book of Mormon is "true". They give it the benefit of the doubt to the
Book of Mormon at every turn and focus only on the aspects of the research
that reinforce their faith. Others approach it with a prudent measure of
skepticism and address the fundamental questions of whether the Book of
Mormon is a plausible history and whether or not the archeological record
gives credence to the book.
There are a couple different levels of analysis of the Book of Mormon. The
top level is held by professional, University level researchers.
FARMS (Foundation for
Ancient Research and Mormon Studies) would be among this group, but most of
their work is apologetic rather than scholastic in nature.
FARMS is well-funded by private grants and by the church itself through
BYU. On the one hand, they claim that their research conforms to "the
highest standards of scholarship", but on the other hand, they
The work of the
Foundation rests on the premise that the Book of Mormon and other
scriptures were written by prophets of God. Belief in this premise—in
the divinity of scripture—is a matter of faith. Religious truths require
divine witness to establish the faith of the believer.
Believing that the scriptures are "divine" might be a matter of faith,
but belief that the Book of Mormon is an accurate history of a real people
is fair game for scientific examination.
The Bible quotes Jesus as saying, "No servant can serve two masters: for
either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the
one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16:13,
Matthew 6:24) Doesn't that concept apply here? If somebody's faith and
scholarship are in perfect harmony, then there really isn't an issue. But
if there is a contradiction, will faith trump reason, or will reason trump
Based upon the preceding quote, we see that FARMS formed their beliefs
through faith. Now they are trying to buttress that belief through
scholarship. But if faith is a valid basis of belief, why would scholarship
be necessary? On the other hand, if the evidence really supported Joseph
Smith's claims regarding the Book of Mormon, why would faith be necessary?
FARMS talks a lot about how implausible every explanation for the Book of
Mormon is (other than it being true). For example, Daniel Peterson said,
There are those who wish to contend that Joseph Smith
just "made it up," that Mormonism is merely a rather haphazard pastiche
of American frontier nostrums, a bit of folk magic, and a few
half-understood chunks of popular theology created by a rough-hewn but
gifted Yankee bumpkin on the basis of some combination or other of
ethical deficiency and a pathological personality. It seems to me that
they face an increasingly difficult task. (FARMS Review
of Books, Volume 13, Number 1, Editor's
Is Peterson serious? Does he honestly believe that it is a
difficult task to believe that the Book of Mormon isn't an accurate
translation of an authentic ancient document? Does he honestly believe
that it is getting harder and harder to examine the evidence and continue to
believe that the Book of Mormon is of 19th Century origin?
I don't know. But I do know that the majority of the critics didn't
"wish to contend that Joseph Smith just 'made it up'" and then try to defend
that position. Rather, they desperately wanted to believe, but the evidence
compelled them to accept the fact that Joseph Smith just made it up. They
didn't "wish" to believe that--the evidence forced them to. (Please note
that I said "majority" of the critics, not "all" of the critics. There are
in fact many critics who did "wish to contend that Joseph Smith made it
up." But they are in the minority and attributing that mindset to critics
in general is a misrepresentation of a diverse group, composed of many
But FARMS as an organization doesn't examine the evidence and then follow
where it leads. At least it doesn't do so on the big questions, namely, "Is
the Book of Mormon a true history?" Rather, they begin with that position
and try to defend it. As an organization, they aren't searching for the
truth. Rather, they are defending the pre-determined position. I have no
doubt that many scholars that are affiliated with FARMS do real research,
following the evidence to where it leads them. However, if their searches
don't lead to faith-promoting conclusions then FARMS won't publish it.
FARMS accentuates any idea or scrap of evidence that might lend
plausibility to the Book of Mormon, and vigorously criticizes anything that
would demote faith, without regard to its scholastic merits. The result is
that as an organization, they don't meet high standards of scholarship but
rather, high standards of apologetics. FARMS is like the trial lawyer who
isn't interested in the truth, rather is only concerned with portraying the
evidence in the best possible light.
Because of that, not only do they fail at achieving high standards of
scholarship, they also fail at promoting faith. When people discover that
FARMS is trying to serve two masters--that it loves faith and hates
scholarship--they loose faith. Not only do they learn
they need to look
elsewhere to find the whole truth, they feel betrayed by the sources
that distorted the big picture in order to support their faith-based
By the term "real scholars", I mean people who do top-quality,
painstaking research, who subject it to the vigorous criticism of their
peers, and follow the evidence to wherever it may lead. They are like the
FARMS scholars, but without the premise that certain beliefs cannot be
scrutinized and without the restriction of only publishing faith-promoting
studies. Their goal is to find models of reality that explain the evidence
better than the models that are currently espoused. They try to communicate
what the evidence implies--not twist the evidence to say what they want it
An example of a real scholar is
David P. Wright, associate
professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near East at Brandeis University.
His goal in life was gain a deep understanding of ancient scripture so that
he could intelligently defend the Church of Jesus Christ. His honest,
scholarly research led him to conclusions that were outside of the
parameters that the church found acceptable. He published his research and
the church excommunicated him. For a taste of his writing, consider
Isaiah in the Book of Mormon...and Joseph Smith in Isaiah.
Novice scholars research the Book of Mormon for their personal
understanding and write their thoughts about it. On the faithful side,
check out Jeff Lindsay's
Book of Mormon
Evidences. On the skeptical side, contemplate rpcman's
Book of Mormon Questions.
The Mormon-Anti-Mormon Debate
In contrast to the scholars described above, when somebody says the word
"Anti-Mormon", I think of people like the
Ed Decker and the late
Walter Martin. They try to prove
in a comprehensive way that Mormons aren't Christian and that Mormonism is a
false and corrupt religion. Their concern is the eternal well-being of the
souls of Mormons.
There are some weaknesses in the general approach of anti-Mormons.
First, they tend to look like hypocrites because they don't apply the same
level of skepticism to their own Christian beliefs that they apply to
Mormonism. Second, they base many of their arguments on the Bible without
sufficiently addressing the topic of hermeneutics and why their approach to
Biblical interpretation is better than that of the Mormons. Third, they
tend to spread their attacks too thin and jump to conclusions too quickly.
Websites such as SHIELDS,
Appologetics attempt to respond directly to these attacks.
Walter Martin wrote a book entitled The Maze of Mormonism, which
included a list of 42 "unanswered questions on the Mormon gospel." SHIELDS
decided to go ahead and answer the questions. SHIELDS said in their
introduction to their answers:
is being accomplished with the help and support of many people.
It was begun many years ago by Stan Barker with
the support of his sweet wife Susan.
We also wish to express special
appreciation to Robert and Rosemary Brown of Mesa, AZ, for their
encouragement. Craig Ray of Mesa, AZ, Malin Jacobs of Littleton, CO,
and Eugene Humbert of Strasburg, CO, along with other individuals whose
names appear on various articles, have contributed immensely to this
effort. Most importantly we wish to thank
a kind and loving Heavenly Father for His timely blessings during the
course of this work.
After reading that introduction in July of 2001, I found it hilarious
that they had only
9 of the 42 questions. To be clear, I don't think these 42 questions
present a very formidable attack against the church. Some of the questions
are better than others, and I find SHIELDS' answers to be reasonable. I
talked with Stan Barker of SHIELDS about the yet-unanswered questions, and
he told me that they have rough drafts of most of the answers, but they are
being very meticulous in polishing them before putting it on their website.
Update. As of August 2005, they had 18 answered.