Grant Palmer: An “Insider’s” Obscured View
By Justin Hart
You know things are heating up around here when history repeats itself within two years. Here’s the lowdown: a scholar devises a theory of the origin of the Book of Mormon antithetical to anything taught in the Church, publishes the theory, defends himself in the major media, sparking support for candlelight vigils, protests, phone calls, emails, and websites. That was Tom Murphy two years ago, today it’s Grant Palmer.
Grant Palmer was employed by the church for 34 years, serving as an LDS Institute director in Los Angeles, northern California and at the Utah State Prison before retiring a few years ago. In 2002, Signature Books published Palmer’s “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins.” The book questions the divine origins of the Book of Mormon and attempts to cast doubt on a host of historical church events.
In his book Palmer decries anything that cannot be substantiated empirically. This mindset automatically discounts any supernatural origins behind the foundational events of the Church. This fact alone will offend many Latter-day Saints who read his book.
Palmer is also a selective historian, weaving a narrative in a calm and deliberate manner, but avoiding sources that threaten his theories. Utah researcher and radio talk show host Van Hale agrees: “He takes everybody else’s statements over Joseph Smith’s. With that kind of bias, you are going to come up with different conclusions than most [Mormons] would.”
Palmer contended in yesterday’s Deseret News: “I’m not out to attack the church at all. I don’t have an agenda.” Noted Columbia University historian Richard Bushman disputes this: “Most faithful members of the church who read it will feel he’s attacking their faith at its foundations.”
As the title of his book indicates, Palmer suggests his viewpoint has added credibility given his professional career as CES director. While an institute teacher and director would certainly be saturated with knowledge of church history it hardly qualifies the author to claim “insider” status. Palmer has since downplayed the book’s title as a marketing ploy.
He further suggests that fellow colleagues at BYU’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute agree with his conclusions. Responding to this claim the institute issued a rare statement declaring: “Smith Institute scholars are unified in rejecting Palmer’s argument that Mormon foundational stories are largely inaccurate myths and fictional accounts.”
The JFSI statement also nicely summarizes Palmer’s key thesis. According to Palmer early church events have little basis in fact and no basis in reality. This statement might get our readers’ blood going but note that the evidence Palmer presents is at best one-sided and at worst manipulative.
As Meridian author and recognized church historian Davis Bitton notes in his review for FARMS: “Grant H. Palmer thinks the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been dishonest by holding back information that controverts the traditional account of its origins. But he doesn’t mind holding back quite a bit himself.” Bitton goes on to dismiss Palmer’s research: “Palmer has produced little or no original research. He has not, to my knowledge, presented his own findings on any specific topic at conventions of historians, and I do not find his name in lists of scholarly publications.”
Bitton demonstrates Palmer’s flawed research by thoroughly dismantling a minor charge in the book. For example, Palmer claims that there were no revivals in or near Palmyra around 1820. Bitton cites an actual excerpt from the Palmyra Register in 1820 describing a Methodist camp meeting. Bitton points goes on citing three detailed studies on the origins of the First Vision and how Palmer completely ignores this information.
Calling everything into question
Palmer’s key charge in the book (and perhaps his only original thesis) is that the Joseph Smith’s account of obtaining and translating the Book of Mormon was essentially stolen from E.T.A. Hoffman’s fairy tale The Golden Pot. Never heard of it? It’s doubtful that Joseph did either.
As FAIR author George Cobabe notes:
Der golden Topf was first published in Europe in the German language in 1814 and 1819. It was published in French in 1822. It was not available in English until 1827 in London and Edinburgh, and became available in America that same year. According to Palmer, a man by the name of Luman Walters lived in Paris after the story had been first published and when the story would have been available to him. Palmer suggests, although he offers no real evidence, that Mr. Walters had an unusual interest in the occult and things magical and therefore would surely (despite a lack of evidence) have brought Der golden Topf with him from Europe. Mr. Walters moved to Sodus, New York, about 25 miles from Palmyra, and lived there at least during the period of 1820 to 1823 when it is suggested that he likely knew Joseph Smith. Walters and Joseph Smith were part of a group involved in digging for treasure at Miner’s Hill, owned by Abner Cole.
Essentially, Palmer is playing a game of “Six Degrees of Separation.” Most reasonable readers will conclude that this seems a bit far-fetched. Cobabe goes on to note: “Palmer would have us believe that a young, gullible boy would be turned into an aggressive, effective charlatan, in a very short time, after being told a fictional tale by a relative stranger–and that this boy’s family would give him complete support in his fabrication.”
In his book, Palmer attempts to dismiss or discredit the First Vision, the Joseph Smith Translation, the Book of Abraham, the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and the priesthood restorations. To this last topic, Palmer completely rejects the accounts of angelic visitors. FARMS reviewer Mark Ashurst-McGee calmly dispatches Palmer’s assertion:
No mention is made by Palmer of the report given two months later in the Painesville Telegraph that Cowdery claimed “to have a divine mission, and to have seen and conversed with Angels.” This and other sources from the first years of the church can be read as confirmations of priesthood restoration through angels.
He goes on to demonstrate Palmer’s complete inconsistency describing Oliver Cowdery:
“To reject the testimony of Oliver Cowdery is to argue either that Cowdery was a complete psychological slave to Smith’s impositions or that he was a co-conspirator. Palmer vacillates between the two interpretations, neither of which is supported by the historical record.”
These are just few examples that illustrate the complications and inaccuracies in Palmer’s book. At the very least these points should demonstrate that Palmer is certainly not trying to buoy the faith of his fellow Saints. We’ll leave the rest of Palmer’s story to the news media but keep you updated on further developments.
A Summary of Five Reviews of Grant Palmer’s “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins” (with a Few Comments of My Own), George Cobabe published on FAIR.
Editor’s Introduction, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Review of Books, Volume: 15 Issue: 2; Pp. ix-lxii by Daniel Peterson
Statement from the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Review of Books, Volume: 15 Issue: 2; Pp. 255-56
The Charge of a Man with a Broken Lance (But Look What He Doesn’t Tell Us) Reviewed By: Davis Bitton; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Review of Books, Volume: 15 Issue: 2; Pp. 257-72
A One-sided View of Mormon Origins; Reviewed By: Mark Ashurst-McGee; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Review of Books, Volume: 15 Issue: 2; Pp. 309-64
Prying into Palmer; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2003. Review of Books, Volume: 15 Issue: 2; Pp. 365-410; Reviewed By: Louis Midgley
Asked and Answered: A Response to Grant H. Palmer; Reviewed By: James B. Allen; Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004. FARMS Review Volume 16 Issue 1