The Unauthorized Investigator's Guide to
The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints

Lesson 1

Introduction to the Book of Mormon Debate

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 universe.

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 state

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 faith?

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 Introduction)

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 sincere truth-seekers.)

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 premise.

Real Scholars
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 to say.

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
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 Tanners, 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, FAIR, and Wade Englund's 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:

This project 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  answered 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.


Up Next

If you have a question or would like to discuss these topics, I suggest that you go to a Mormon-related bulletin board (here are some recommendations). If you'd like to contact me with comments or feedback, you may send an email to