Post Author: Bill Pratt
Fourth generation Mormon Grant Palmer collected a mountain of historical scholarship on the origins of Mormonism and wrote a book about it in 2002: An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. Palmer’s goal was to communicate to Mormon laypeople the progress that had been made over the previous 30 years toward an accurate and historical understanding of Mormon origins.
If you want a great overview of Mormon origins, I commend this book to you. With the possible future president of the United States being a Mormon, it is extremely important for all Americans to understand this faith tradition. Below I have excerpted some of Palmer’s conclusions. Obviously, you will have to read the complete book to get the details.
Palmer first writes about the origins of the Book of Mormon and the golden plates. Recall that Mormon tradition claims that Smith discovered some golden plates which contained engravings of an ancient Reformed Egyptian language. Smith claimed to be able to translate these engravings, and the result of his translation was the Book of Mormon. Here is Palmer’s answer to the question of the golden plates and the Book of Mormon:
That Joseph Smith literally translated ancient documents is problematic. He mistranslated portions of the Bible, as well as the Book of Joseph, the Book of Abraham, the Kinderhook plates, and a Greek psalter. There is no evidence that he ever translated a document as we would understand that phrase.
Furthermore, there are three obstacles to accepting the golden plates as the source of the Book of Mormon. First, although these records were said to have been preserved for generations by Nephite prophets, Joseph Smith never used them in dictating the Book of Mormon. If we accept the idea that he dug up a real, physical record, then we must account for the fact that he never used it in the translation process.
Second, much of the Book of Mormon reflects the intellectual and cultural environment of Joseph’s own time and place. We find strands of American antiquities and folklore, the King James Bible, and evangelical Protestantism woven into the fabric of the doctrines and setting. A few people want to maintain that something like the Protestant Reformation occurred 2,500 years ago in America. It is more reasonable to accept that the evolving doctrines and practices of Protestantism down to Joseph Smith’s time influenced the Book of Mormon. There is also an interesting syncretism in the Book of Mormon that shows the work of Joseph’s creative mind. He draws from these major sources and fashions a message that was especially relevant to nineteenth-century America.
Third, the only other conceivable reason for preserving the gold plates would have been to show the witnesses a tangible artifact that would verify the antiquity of the translation. Yet, the eleven witnesses gazed on and handled the golden plates the same way they saw spectral treasure guardians and handled their elusive treasures, in the spirit, not in the flesh.
Notice some of the key points that Palmer’s research unearthed. Smith did not use the golden plates to translate the Book of Mormon. Instead the Book of Mormon is demonstrably a compilation of KJV Bible passages, commentary on those Bible passages, identifiable American folklore that was popular in Smith’s day, and evangelical Protestant influences where Smith grew up.
In addition, the eleven witnesses who supposedly saw the golden plates merely saw them with their “spiritual” eyes. In other words, they, at best, had visions of the plates. One particularly powerful piece of evidence for this claim is that, according to Palmer, “On 25 March 1838, Martin Harris [one of the witnesses who allegedly saw the golden plates] testified publicly that none of the signatories to the Book of Mormon saw or handled the physical records.” Palmer recounts additional confessions by other witnesses as to the real nature of their visions.
In part 2 of this series, we will consider Palmer’s remaining thoughts about the origins of Mormonism.