Revisiting Joseph Smith’s Novel History

The underestimation of the divide between Mormonism and mainstream Christianity

It is safe to say that when the Mormons built a fantastic, six-spired, gleaming Mormon Temple outside of Washington, DC in 1974, not too many East Coasters were familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) story. I recall gawking at the temple during a drive, as my brother’s Catholic friend knowingly intoned that the gold figure topping the tallest spire represented the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet at the end of the world. To my then-Methodist ears that sounded appealingly Evangelical. And of course it was entirely wrong. But it was typical of how most people approached Mormonism, interpreting their encounters with LDS believers with the assumption that they shared a common Christian vocabulary and frame of reference with the group, which, while maybe a bit separatist, had to be essentially like all the other “denominations.”

In the years since, thanks to Mormonism’s exponential growth and our accelerated media culture, the LDS church has become far less of a mystery in many ways. Stories of Joseph Smith’s vision and his digging up golden plates from which he translated The Book of Mormon—essentially an Incan reimagining of the New Testament—as well as Brigham Young’s trek across the Rockies have become just another chapter in American lore. Mormons tend to be outstanding people, salt of the earth—and with Western culture rapidly secularizing, many Christians now are advocating that the LDS are actually separated, albeit peculiarly so, brethren.

This seems to be the take of Stephen Webb. In a fascinating piece for First Things (Feb. 2012), titled “Mormonism Obsessed with Christ,” he says that for a large part of his teaching career, he did not try to hide his condescension towards Mormonism. But, Webb writes, “I have come to repent of this view, and not just because I came to my senses about how wrong it is to be rude toward somebody else’s faith. I changed my mind because I came to realize just how deeply Christ-centered Mormonism is.” Concerning The Book of Mormon, he says that while it is “lackluster,”

it is dull precisely because it is all about Jesus. There are many characters in this book, but they change as little as the plot. Nobody stands out but him. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). … Every page of the book prepares the way for its stunning climax, which is a literal appearance of Jesus to the ancient peoples of America.

He concludes: “The Book of Mormon raises a question for Christians. Can you believe too much about Jesus? Can you go too far in conceiving his glory? Let me answer that question by posing another. Isn’t the whole point of affirming his divinity the idea that one can never say enough about him? And if Smith’s stories are not true, aren’t they more like exaggerations or embellishments than outright slander and deceit?”

I’d have to answer Webb’s questions first with a hesitant “Yes” followed by a much more thumping “No.”

The claims of Mormonism

Mormonism makes very specific truth claims that cannot be viewed with neutrality, especially by Catholics. Either Smith enjoyed a succession of fabulous encounters with the divine, or he was a charlatan of the highest order. Mormons following his lead teach that their Church was founded as a restoration of a Christian priesthood totally lost when the young Church suffered fatal apostasy early in its timeline. The assertion takes on vivid force in an account of former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball‘s visit to Denmark’s Vor Frue Church, which houses the Thorvaldsen statues of the Christus and of the Twelve Apostles. In Peter’s hand, shaped out of marble, is a thick set of keys. Kimball pointed to those keys and announced, “I want you to tell everyone in Denmark that I hold the keys! We hold the real keys, and we use them every day.” Pointing to the statues, Kimball said, “These are the dead Apostles.” Pointing his compatriots, he said, “Here we have the living Apostles… We are the living Apostles.”

The story underscores the fact that the Mormons claim to be not only one Christian faith, but the unique Christian faith. Smith said that God the Father and God the Son, appearing together as two distinct, human-like manifestations, commanded the founding of this new church in the 19th century. In the PBS documentary The Mormons, President Gordon B. Hinckley admits of Smith’s vision, “[I]t’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world…. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall.”

In the Mormon Church’s first years Smith claimed he was visited repeatedly by an angel who instructed him to translate what would become The Book of Mormon, a volume that was to contain “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” Since on examination the LDS gospel seems so stunningly different from traditional Christianity—with talk of God producing spirit children, secret temple rites featuring secret handshakes, and enough special revelations to fill three new volumes of scripture—it is little wonder that many Christians read his founding story and reflexively back away. The Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has gone as far as refusing to acknowledge Mormon baptisms as valid. It suggests that St. Paul’s warning to the Galatians was written with circumstances in mind that bear more than a passing resemblance to those described by Smith: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:8).

Webb’s big-heartedness is admirable, but it hardly jibes with the fundamental instinct that truth matters, and a lie—even one that bears some good fruit—remains a lie. Webb’s optimistic take differs sharply from that of former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward: “Christian churches do not regard the LDS as a branch of historic Christianity. Nor does the LDS church regard itself as a branch of a common Christian tree. To Mormons, their church is the tree…and the rest are, at best, withered branches. … [A]lthough Mormons speak of God, Jesus…salvation and eternal life…what they mean by them is substantially different. For example, Mormons believe that God was once a man like us, that he has a wife, and that married couples can ‘progress’ in the afterlife to become gods themselves.” 

When pressed with the question, “Which Christian church does Mormonism most resemble?” Woodward’s frank retort was, “Well, there are a lot of trees in the Christian forest but none resemble the LDS church. The church it most resembles is the Unification Church founded by Dr. Sun Myung Moon. Both…see themselves as superseding all previous religions.”

Evangelical-Mormon doctrinal rapprochement?

With such thoughts, and many conversations with Mormons, as a backdrop, I have been dismayed to follow Richard J. Mouw’s recent efforts at rapprochement with the Latter-day Saints. For over a decade the president of Fuller Seminary of California has participated in Mormon-Evangelical dialogue with a view toward developing a better understanding between the two groups. He published Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (2012), which follows in the wake of similar books, such as BYU professor Robert Millet’s A Different Jesus? (2005) and, even earlier, Evangelical Craig Blomberg and Mormon Stephen Robinson’s How Wide the Divide? (1997).

Mouw thinks the referenced divide is widely overestimated. And now he weighs in at the Evangelical magazine Books & Culture with a review commending Paul Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton). I respect Richard Mouw greatly, but his essay, “Enlarge the Place of Thy Tent” enlarged only my desire to ask, “Really?”

You will have to check it out for yourself, but to my mind Mouw pushes the “Respect-Thy-Mormon-Neighbor” argument just a bit too far. The Book of Mormon belongs to all of us? Are we to suppose that he and Paul Gutjahr think Mormon temple architecture belongs to all of us too, simply because the structures’ unusual profiles shoot up from so many urban landscapes? Sorry, but no thanks. Though I am familiar with the Washington, DC and San Diego temples from their freeway vantage points, they will always remain very foreign to me.

Is Mormonism a cult? Of course it is not, if we are talking Jim Jones associations; by conventional standards the LDS are blue-chip respectables—witness Mitt Romney and Gladys Knight. But show me a group that believes in living prophets and ongoing public revelations and I will show you an unusual, somewhat healthy charismatic body, that cannot help but flirt with cultishness. That may offend some readers, given the ever-improving LDS profile, but a bit of reading in the history of Utah and LDS doctrine might enlighten the unpersuaded. Samuel W. Taylor’s trilogy—Nightfall at Nauvoo, The Kingdom or Nothing, and Rocky Mountain Empire—is well-written, riveting history and thus a good entry point for the uninitiated. Also worthy of note are the many accounts of former Mormons who have embraced mainstream Christianity. Best-in-show here goes to Latayne Colvett Scott’s story: a ham-fisted title choice belies The Mormon Mirage’s (Zondervan) stirring effect, and isn’t over-reach to call hers a small classic in the genre of Evangelical conversion literature. Farther off the radar but also worth tracking down is Isaiah Bennett’s Inside Mormonism (Catholic Answers), unique for its author’s perspective: he is a Catholic priest who converted to Mormonism only to later revert back to Roman Catholicism and pen an irenic apologia. Finally, for a respectful, heavy-duty shelf reference, Zondervan’s The New Mormon Challenge is indispensable (I note here the substantial contributions by past-president of the Evangelical Theological Society, turned-Catholic Francis Beckwith, and—as an olive branch—also the foreword by none other than Mouw).

Perhaps the Book of Mormon does belong to me, in the same sense that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces also belongs to me and all of us living in Oprah Nation. Mouw must know he is writing for the uninitiated when he attempts to score with his claim, “Much of the theological content [of The Book of Mormon] is basically Evangelical.” The many credible Evangelical works on Mormonism have pointed this out: Smith began by recasting the basic doctrines he learned from competing Protestant denominations, lifted large portions from the King James Bible, and only then gradually began extrapolating his more outrageously heretical doctrines from simplistic and imaginative Scripture twistings.[i] The Book of Mormon marked Smith’s earliest, sanest, and most plagiaristic moments. And on that basis Evangelicals are supposed to warm to the text? All while they also insist on updated and gender-inclusive translations of their own Bibles from the likes of Fuller faculty members? Forgive me if I am more than a little confused by it all.

History or tall tales?

The fact that many find something meaningful hardly makes that something either true or meaningful for us all. Is it helpful to assign to the product of a fraud the status of “an important spiritual work”? (L. Ron Hubbard and I are both anxious to know.) Mouw claims the Book of Mormon’s “authoritative status derives from that of the prophetic office” that brought forth the book, but this is patently false. For Mormons, the book’s status derives from the fact they believe it is actual history. Smith, in their scheme, simply unearthed it. In this regard it provides a more accessibly concrete artifact than the dictated revelations of Smith’s later Doctrine & Covenants.

In sympathy with some Mormon friends I found the idea of a Book of Mormon musical less than giddily charming. If this book is a lie, it is not a matter for silly Broadway broadsides; acceptance by millions of the Book of Mormon as scripture is a fact, even if it is an uncomfortable or hard-to-explain fact (although Mouw might also have mentioned turn-of-the-century Mormon apostle B.H. Roberts’ convincing Devil’s advocate explanation[ii] of how a bloke like Smith managed such a book).
Looking back on her LDS past after embracing Christianity, Latayne Colvett Scott wrote, “The Book of Mormon has affected millions of lives, many of them for the better. So have the Koran, Science and Health, and the teachings of Buddha. But The Book of Mormon is a unique scripture that its own adherents can change (and have changed) at will to suit their own purposes. Without the valuable checks-and-balances system of the many manuscripts and papyri available to the Bible scholar, the various editors of The Book of Mormon have through the years made additions, deletions, and corrections to their own holy writ.” Even as they insist it was a divinely-guided translation.

The ongoing clean-up of the text, its uncomfortable contradicting of accepted archaeology, its shameless lifting of reams of passages straight from the King James Bible, and its Farmer’s Almanac manner of addressing all of the theological controversies of its own day—all these things make it difficult to view The Book of Mormon as an expression of religious genius so much as an example of, well, religious hucksterism. That will doubtless raise the dander of devout Mormons, but any other estimation on the part of those not disposed to diplomatic overreach suggests willful patronization.

The situation is an awkward one: since The Book of Mormon itself positions its significance first as history rather than literature, any other assessment by necessity points to Joseph Smith as a teller of tale tales. The scenario gets no better when one moves to Smith’s prolific output of other revelations. Scott sees his Doctrine & Covenants as “the boldest (and most effective) attempt at the manipulation of the human spirit since Machiavelli. No man could live its complicated precepts and be acceptable to God.”

At bottom the problem is simply this: Christian churches can peacefully co-exist because they agree on a shared set of historical data. They differ on the theological interpretation of that common core. But Mormons insist, not only on unique interpretations but on an entirely new set of facts they posit as equally imperative. Other churches find the historicity of LDS claims not just uncompelling but also highly unlikely. How then can credible witness to the world be maintained, if we are willing to dignify claims to recent divine intervention we ourselves deem spurious, even as we ask seekers to consider placing faith in a more ancient set of claims that most likely seem to them incredible as well? Even Muslims do not claim for their Mohammed anywhere near the staggering amount of celestial engagement Mormons insist was privileged Joseph Smith. 

Certainly God can draw straight with crooked lines, and enough gospel is inadvertently crammed between the cover of Joseph Smith’s pastiche that many Mormons may grasp the truth he eschewed when, in his First Vision, he blithely wrote off all of Christendom as an abomination. After extensive personal contact with Mormons and readings in LDS theology, I am convinced this is the case.

I am equally convinced that claims that The Book of Mormon is a great book reflect our culture’s wrongheaded infatuation with knowledge and searching as satisfactory ends in themselves. We live in a time when people disbelieve in the historicity of Scripture and are starved for basic gospel knowledge of sin and salvation, and yet Mouw thinks that we need a new regard for false history presented as fact in The Book of Mormon? I guess sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, but the categories remain noninterchangeable. All spin aside, that’s something the president of an Evangelical seminary ought to know. 

[i] James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting, InterVarsity Press.


[ii] B.H. Roberts, Studies in the Book of Mormon, Signature Books.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Joseph F. Martin 0 Articles
Joseph F. Martin PhD, is a professor of Communication and Rhetoric at Hampton University in Virginia. He is the former art director of re:generation quarterly and his artwork has been commissioned by numerous national clients. He has also written essays and reviews for Word, Books and Culture, and other publications.