We are the legal and divinely chosen
custodians of the restored truth.
Apostle Mark E. Petersen
Origins of the Book of Mormon
One item I wished to examine at Princeton was a manuscript
by one Solomon Spaulding entitled The Manuscript Found. During the early days of
the Mormon church, a number of individuals had claimed that the Book of Mormon was a
revised plagiarism of a mock-biblical novel written by a Dartmouth-educated former
minister Solomon Spaulding. Spaulding died in 1816 and, the story goes, his novel
was stolen or copied by the young minister Sidney Rigdon, who teamed up with Joseph Smith
to found a new religion based upon this eloquent document. The Mormons exulted when a
Spaulding MSS. came to light in the late nineteenth century and, to their eyes, had no
relation to the Book of Mormon, therefore proving the Spaulding theory the baseless
invention of anti-Mormons.
I wanted to judge for myself. Princeton had a copy of the
MSS. on microfilm. After reading a few pages I knew two things. First, this was not the
MSS. of the Book of Mormon. Second, the author of the Book of Mormon wrote this MSS.
Characters, plot, structure, style, names and religious content all paralleled the Book of
Mormon. As one Hardy boys mystery is similar to another, so Spaulding's The Manuscript
Found is similar to the Book of Mormon.
One of the devices Joseph Smith employed in
"translating" the Book of Mormon hieroglyphics he found on the golden plates
delivered to him by the angel Moroni was a peepstone. He placed the oracular rock in a
hat, buried his face in the hat, and read the translation written on the peepstone. The
peepstone was later preserved as a prophetic relic. According to David Whitmer, one of the
three "witnesses" of the golden plates, "God gave to Brother Joseph the
gift to see the sentences in English when he looked into the hat in which was placed the
stone." In Solomon Spaulding's The Manuscript Found is the following
passage: "Hamack then arose and in his hand he held a stone which he pronounced
transparent. Through this he could view things present and things to come. Such was the
clearness of his sight, when this transparent stone was placed before his eyes. He looked
firmly and steadfastly on the stone and raised his prophetic voice."
An original Book of Mormon manuscript from which the first
edition was published in 1830 is still in existence. Mormon scholars have identified the
changing handwriting in the manuscript with the various scribes Joseph Smith employed in
the process of "translation." One section, however, is still a mystery to Church
historians and is attributed by them to "the unidentified scribe." One
researcher into the history of the Book of Mormon, having developed a great familiarity
with Solomon Spaulding's handwriting, saw a reproduction of the portion of the original
Book of Mormon manuscript attributed to "the unidentified scribe" in a Mormon
publication. "What is Spaulding's handwriting doing here?" he exclaimed.
The many challenges doctrinal, historical and
literary to Joseph Smith's claims for the Book of Mormon wearied him as a cloud of
gnats does an elephant. At the dedication of the Nauvoo, Illinois temple, he produced a
copy of the original manuscript to place in the cornerstone. "I've had more than
enough trouble with this thing," one astonished onlooker heard him say.
When one scholar pointed out that the word
"Mormon" was the same as the Greek word for "monster"
("mormo"), the prophet haughtily announced that "Mormon" was a hybrid
word, part English and part Egyptian. The Egyptian word for "good" was
"mon", he explained. Therefore, "Mormon" actually meant "more
The Prophet Translates More Ancient Writings
An English minister visited Nauvoo displaying an
antique-looking manuscript containing non-English characters. He asked Joseph Smith if he
could decipher them. The prophet informed him that the document was "a dictionary of
Egyptian hieroglyphics, identical to those he had translated from the golden plates."
The manuscript was actually a Greek version of the Psalms of David - presented on aged and
moldy parchment to test the Prophet.
The Kinderhook Plates. Along the same
lines, a group of Illinois citizens etched some plates with acid to represent ancient
writing and buried them with some bones in the vicinity of Kinderhook, Illinois. They then
announced their find and called for the Prophet to translate. In his journal Smith's
scribe at the time recorded that "President J. has translated a portion of them, and
finds 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 he received his
kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth."
One of the original Kinderhook plates has survived to the
present time. Metallurgical tests have established that it was a hoax. The results appear
in the Mormon Church magazine, the Ensign, of August,1981.
The Book of Abraham. In 1841, Joseph Smith
began to publish his translation of the Book of Abraham, an Egyptian scroll found in one
of two coffins containing Egyptian mummies purchased and placed on display by the Mormons
as a tourist attraction. This scroll is also extant. By the early twentieth century,
trained Egyptologists had declared that Smith's "translation" bore no
resemblance to the funerary inscriptions on the scroll. The Church leadership in Salt Lake
City, desirous of dispelling skepticism about Smith's translation, recently asked a
reputable Mormon Egyptologist to examine the original. He declared the translation a fake
and was excommunicated. The current Church position is that the text of the Book of
Abraham, part of the canon of scripture, was given by "inspiration" and
therefore need not conform to the document from which it was "translated".
Life on Other Planets
When not laboring over ancient texts, Smith on occasion
disclosed truths by inspiration that were beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals to
uncover. A diary of one of his associates, Oliver N. Huntington, contains a record of the
following utterance by the Prophet: "The inhabitants of the moon are more of a
uniform size than the inhabitants of the earth, being about six feet in height. They dress
very much like the Quaker style . . . ." Many years later Brigham Young, remembering
Joseph's words, asked a Sabbath assembly: "Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this
little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon?" Journal of Discourses 13:271.
Smith could see into heaven as well and observe the
clothing worn there. "A man came to me in Kirtland," reads his journal,
"and told me he had seen an angel, and described his dress. I told him he had seen no
angel, and that there was no such dress in heaven." History of the Church
V:14. Smith's vision extended not only to the moon and the heavens but to the planets as
well. Christ, he told a follower, had not only come to earth but had visited Mars, Venus
and all the other planets from Mercury to Pluto. "He gave us to understand,'
wrote Benjamin F. Johnson, "that there were twelve kingdoms or planets, revolving
around our solar system, to which the Lord gave an equal division of His time or ministry:
that now was His time to again visit the earth."
Retranslating the Bible
One of the thirteen articles of faith of Mormonism that
Mormon children memorize in Sunday school is the Mormon belief that the Bible is the word
of God "if translated properly" and that the Book of Mormon is also the word of
God. The Mormon leadership, therefore, is free to rewrite or "retranslate" the
Bible as they see fit. For example, Joseph Smith "retranslated" Jesus' saying in
the Sermon on the Mount: "Judge not lest ye be judged" as "Judge not
unrighteously, but judge righteous judgment."
One morning in Sunday school, a studious member raised the
question as to why the Book of Mormon, translated by Joseph Smith directly from the
original golden plates inscribed by ancient American prophets, quoted Jesus as saying
"Judge not lest ye be judged"? Wasn't the Book of Mormon a perfect translation
"by the gift and power of God" and, therefore, unlike the Bible translations,
beyond reproach? If so, why did not the words Joseph Smith corrected in the Bible not
appear the same in the Book of Mormon? The teacher had no answer.
"That a quarter million of the human race," wrote
J.H. Beadle in 1870, "should be led to stake their hopes for eternity on the divine
authenticity of such a work, is one of the most melancholy evidences of the inherent
weakness of the human intellect." Life in Utah, p. 255.