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Daniel C. Peterson gave this talk we are excerpting at the FAIRMormon conference in August of 2016, and it can be read in its entirety here. We are rerunning it here in honor of the prophet Joseph Smith’s birthday on December 23.
Sometimes people say “All right, name your single best evidence for the Book of Mormon” or “Name the three absolute proofs for the Book of Mormon.”
Peterson said, “I don’t believe there are any such things. I think that what Latter-day Saint scholars – apologists, if you want to use that term – have thought they were doing with the Book of Mormon…is constructing a cumulative case, no one element of which is definitive, no one element of which will simply force, compel unbelievers to suddenly cave in, surrender. I don’t believe that that’s the Lord’s intention. I don’t believe that there will be any such things.”
He said even if we found a stela in Central America that said, “I, Nephi, was here” people would still find a way to get around that.
Yet, Peterson noted, what he has been unable to do—“and I think I have tried seriously and honestly—[is] to construct a case or construct an explanation of the Book of Mormon other than Joseph Smith’s that really accounts for all the data.”
Joseph Smith’s critics have come up with many explanations for the origins Book of Mormon, but they are convoluted.
Peterson said, “My argument would be that all of the counter-explanations of the Book of Mormon that I’ve looked at – and I think I’ve looked at all of them – run into walls. You eventually run into something where, it simply can’t get you there. It can’t explain everything that needs to be explained.
“If you think Joseph Smith wrote it, how did he do it? If you think there were no plates, what’s going on? You need to come up with another explanation.”
Peterson said, “I see problems with all the alternative explanations, and to me they’re lethal.”
Jeff Lindsay wrote a satire where Joseph Smith is writing the Book of Mormon and people are constantly bringing in sources for him. Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, Parley P Pratt bring in wheelbarrows of stuff for him to read.
At one point Rigdon finds a really good line from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” for the Book of Mormon and Joseph says, “But Sidney, this book won’t even be written for another 35 years.” Sidney answers, “Well, you’re pretending to be a prophet, aren’t you? I mean, get with the program.”
Petersen says, “To me, the explanation of Joseph Smith is simple and elegant, and the alternative explanations just don’t work, and they get more and more complex and it’s just too much for me. I’ve said sometimes that I simply don’t have the faith to disbelieve Joseph Smith’s story. I just can’t get there. I can’t do it.”
“These are the logical options as I see them: That Joseph either had plates or he didn’t have plates. And then there are subdivisions that you can follow through to see possible ways in which each of these might be the case.
“I remember my friend Bill Hamblin once being in communication with a one-time, fairly prominent, ex-member critic of the Church and of the Book of Mormon. And [Bill] said, ‘Look, let’s assume for a moment that you’re right and that Joseph Smith did not have plates. Did he know that he didn’t have plates or did he think that he had the plates? In other words, was he a conscious deceiver, or was he in some sense mad?’
“To which this critic responded: ‘I don’t have to lower myself to your simplistic little dichotomies.’”
Peterson said, however, that this is a fair question that demands an answer to all those critics who claim Joseph Smith did not have plates.
If Joseph knew that he had no plates and acted as if he did, you run into a number of issues immediately. You have to ask, said Peterson, “Was he a cynical fraud, just a con-artist, a 19th century con man?”
Yet all of Joseph Smith’s writings are being published in the Joseph Smith Papers and Peterson said, “If Joseph Smith is not sincere, then I can’t judge sincerity in another human being.
“This is a man who in his most personal private writings, letters to his wife, personal journal entries, they’re full of prayers. He’s praying all the time. Oh, Lord, help your servant, help me. Writing to his wife, Emma, praying, expressing prayers for her. Telling his children to be sure they say their prayers at night, this sort of thing. All the time coming across as a believer. There’s nothing, certainly there’s nothing at all in the early Joseph Smith that you could say points to someone who’s a cynical, manipulative deceiver. It’s just not there. He doesn’t let the mask fall at all. If he is one, there’s no evidence for it that I can see.”
“This is a young man…[who] would go out into the woods to pray when he was concerned about something, when he was worried, when he was upset or indecisive and so on. There’s a continual pattern of this kind of thing. He is a believer. If you can see anything from the writings that are coming out, he really believes that he’s receiving revelations. He’s not a cynical con artist.
“And there’s other evidence. Would a cynical con artist have put up with some of the stuff he endured?
“Think of Liberty Jail. If you’ve ever been in Liberty Jail, you know how small that area was and how grim and dark it was… He was genuinely miserable. I think you have to understand that he came close to despair. You can imagine what it must have been like for him there. When he was writing this epistle, the famous epistle in Section 121: ‘O Lord, where art thou?’ I don’t think you should see that as just literary flourish or play-acting. He really is feeling abandoned. This is a terrible time for him.
“And it’s made all the more terrible…by the fact that the saints are being driven out and he’s not able to do anything about it. Can you imagine? If you had any trace of human conscience at all, if you were lying, this would be almost impossible to endure. And he would have reached his absolute low point, but he comes through it faith intact, as does his brother Hyrum.
“Think of what else happened to the saints because of his claims. Can you imagine, again, if you were just making up a story and there were people literally dying for you, for this story you’re telling? You would have to be a sociopath to be able to put up with that, but there’s, again, no evidence that he was anything of the kind.
“Then, of course, there’s his own ultimate martyrdom. He actually thought he was going to die at Liberty, but he did die just a few years later. And he pretty well knew that that was going to be the end result.
“Now it’s easy to sit here and say, well, a con artist might go through it all to the end, but not many would. Again this argues for sincerity rather than cynicism and conscious deceit. He does actually die there and he dies faithful to his testimony. So does Hyrum Smith, and that’s striking to me. That Hyrum, the elder brother, accompanies him to Carthage Jail.”
Then, of course, there is the idea that Joseph Smith was crazy-that he thought he had plates, but he really didn’t. Peterson said, “Suppose you say…Joseph was hallucinating the plates. What about all the other people? Did he really manage to find eight local yokels who would also hallucinate plates just in time?…I don’t know how you [would] even pull this off.
“You’ve got the eight witnesses, you’ve got the three, you’ve got multiple other witnesses I’ve mentioned before. Some of my favorites are the people who spend time with the plates when Joseph isn’t around – Emma and his sister Katherine feeling the plates, feeling the D-shaped rings that hold them together, ruffling along the edges, you know, and having the top plate scrape across the one below.
“Again, you can say all you want: Joseph thought he had plates, he was just mentally ill, but then you’ve got a whole bunch of other people and they seem to be densely concentrated around the area where Joseph lives – something in the water that they all imagine plates all at the same time. It’s remarkable. That’s almost a sign of divine intervention right there, that you have such luck to find so many crazy people so densely concentrated and available to him.”
“Richard Bushman interestingly says in the case of early Mormonism it’s the critics not the Mormons who have to dispose of the early primary sources, the historical documents. You have to just get rid of them, because you have the witnesses saying, ‘Look, I held them.’
“Then they say, well, they never actually claimed to touch them. Yes, Hyrum Smith says, I held them with these hands. Can he be any more clear?
“Well, he didn’t really see them with his real eyes. He says, I saw them with these eyes. I don’t know what else he can say.”
So the alternative, said Peterson, is that Joseph had plates, but where did he get them? There is the possibility that he made them, but what evidence is there that he had that capacity? “What evidence is there that he was a metallurgist or a blacksmith or anything of the kind that he could make plates?”
Others suggest that Oliver Cowdery made them, but the same questions arise. There is no evidence that he had these capacities.
Another question said Peterson is, “Where do you get that much gold? Do you realize how much gold that would be? We’re talking about thousands and thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gold in today’s prices. The plates are generally estimated at about 60 pounds. Even if they’re gold alloy, that’s a lot of gold.
“And then it disappears, right? The family had this enormously valuable artifact and then they lost it or something? And they continued to live in poverty? It’s really rather strange…”
Was there, in fact, some kind of forge near Palmyra belching smoke where Joseph or Oliver where fashioning of pound after pound of gold into plates and nobody noticed? Hardly.
“So both the cynical fraud and the pious fraud sort of go out of the way there and the evidence that he made them is nil.”
If Joseph Smith had the plates and he didn’t make them—where did he get them? Peterson said the choices are from a contemporary or a non-contemporary. Try as they have, critics have not been able to come up with a contemporary that holds any water.
Peterson said, “I put this last because I think every other avenue has been blocked off. You can’t do it, and so it leaves you with the one explanation that’s still out there.
“Now I know for some people this is impossible too. But you may remember the line from Sherlock Holmes where he explained his method of deduction. Which was simply, you have to eliminate all the things that are impossible and whatever you are left with, however improbable, must be the explanation.
“Now there are people out there saying, ‘No, no, no, you don’t get books from angels”, to quote Sterling McMurrin. He already had a predetermined dogmatic position, so it couldn’t be that way. Or…Dale Morgan, who said, ‘Look, I can accept any explanation except the one the Church gives.’ Well, if that’s your position, then fine. This avenue is blocked off for you too. So you have to go with another.” But what is it?
“Now I realize,” concluded Peterson, “that I’m oversimplifying and that not everybody will get to this position, but it’s the way I get there. It’s why I can’t take those other avenues. I’ve said I can’t not believe, because to me, Joseph Smith’s story is easier to credit than the alternative explanations that have been proposed to account for what he claimed.”